Reports suggest that detention conditions [for Castro’s political prisoners in punishment cells] amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment: these cells are said to be very small . . . with no light and no furniture; they lack sanitary provisions including drinking water, and are often infested with rats, mice and cockroaches; the prisoners . . . sometimes are not permitted to wear any clothing nor given any bedding. Amnesty International report “Prisoners of Conscience: 71 Longing for Freedom,” March 18, 2005
This meeting is without a doubt a victory for Cuba’s democratic forces. . . . There will be a before and after for May 20 in Cuba. Economist Martha Beatriz Roque, lead organizer for the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Cuba and former political prisoner, spoken in Havana, May 20, 2005
You wouldn’t know it from The New York Times or nearly all the media in New York (the purported center of communications for this nation), but in Havana on May 20—for the first time in Fidel Castro’s 46 years of brutal rule—there was a public mass meeting, with subversive shouts of “Freedom! Freedom!”
As Anita Snow reported for the Associated Press, “A little more than half [of the 200] present [for the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Cuba] were delegates from diverse opposition groups around the island. The rest were organizers, international journalists, diplomats and other special guests.”
The resident dictator was clearly concerned at the refusal by these Cubans to be silenced for fear of being thrown into his gulags. He tried to keep the resistance quiet. As the Financial Times noted, “Cuba denied visas to dozens of European politicians and Cuban American leaders who sought to attend the meeting, and expelled four European deputies.”
And, the AP added, “Cuba on Thursday expelled two European lawmakers who had planned to attend the gathering and refused entry to two others. . . . Six Poles—three journalists, a human rights worker and two students”—were also expelled.
Among the Cubans intending to come who were arrested beforehand were two independent librarians from eastern Cuba, Elio Enrique Chávez and Luis Elio de la Paz. In a quick, secret trial, they were charged and convicted for the crime of “dangerousness” (peligrosidad). They were a danger to his dictatorship.
In a letter smuggled out from their cells, the prisoners wrote that their captors told them their prison terms would not be publicly described as punishment but rather as a government work-study program. The librarians refused to be part of that cover-up and insisted to their jailers that they were being sentenced for their political positions.
Those nonviolent freedom fighters who did make it to Havana on May 20 had expected that Castro would try to prevent the meeting. After all, in 2003 he cracked down furiously on 75 dissenters who weren’t even holding a meeting and put them away for long prison terms. So why didn’t he shut down the May 20 assembly?
On the night of May 20, I heard a clueless BBC reporter from Havana say blithely of the dictator: “He doesn’t see this as a threat at all.”
A keener analysis appeared in the May 20 New York Sun by Meghan Clyne, whose extensive reporting in the days leading up to the May 20 assembly in Havana shamed the silent New York Times:
“As the Sun reported in March, Europe will be scrutinizing Mr. Castro’s response to today’s events as the European Union prepares to decide in coming months whether to renew sanctions imposed on Cuba after the regime’s jailing of 75 freedom advocates in March 2003.”
Knowing Europe was watching, the assembly’s organizers, wrote Clyne, “had been so thorough in gaining foreign recognition of the event that it would be impossible at this point for Mr. Castro to prevent its taking place—as he did with the last similar attempt to stage a pro-democracy meeting, a planned gathering of the human rights organization Concilio Cubano, in 1996—without a significant international outcry.”
Also, as Frank Calzón, director of the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington, D.C., told Clyne—after Castro staged a huge anti-Bush rally on May 17, rounding up many thousands of Cubans—the staging of that event showed Castro “feels threatened by this group [organizing the May 20 meeting].” After all, as Calzón’s remarks were paraphrased in the Sun:
“A legitimate and freely elected leader doesn’t need to rally hundreds of thousands of people to support him when confronted with hundreds of nonviolent dissenters.”
While most of the American media were sleeping during the Cuban dissenters’ preparation for May 20, Meghan Clyne reported that the House of Representatives had passed (392 to 22) a resolution, H.R. 193, expressing “support and solidarity to the organizers and participants of the historic meeting.”
Among the 22 who voted against the resolution was New York’s Charles Rangel because, he complained to the Sun, American politicians “refuse to give the government [of Cuba] the respect that it deserves.” As for the imminent assembly on May 20, Rangel said, “I don’t think it helps to be supporting insurgents overthrowing the government.” It would be better, Rangel continued, to try “to reach out to the government to see what we can do to help both the government and people of Cuba, not just isolating them by dealing with dissidents.”
Gee, what about such insurgents and dissidents as Samuel Adams, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King—and José Martí, the poet and journalist who led the Cuban Revolutionary Party and was killed during his insurgency to liberate Cuba from Spain? Havana’s international airport is named for José Martí.
Next week: my suggestions to Congressman Rangel on how he can reach out to Fidel Castro.