Opinion

Commentary: In Cuba, it's business as usual

The Cuban regime knows no shame.

On March 8, Granma, the Communist Party daily, foretold the death of Guillermo Farinas Hernandez. On a hunger strike since Feb. 24, he is demanding that two dozen political prisoners in ill health be freed. Cuba can't be blackmailed or pressured, Granma noted, nor would it be ethical to force-feed him while conscious.

Even though the World Medical Association considers force-feeding an "inhuman and degrading treatment," it is hard to stomach Havana talking about ethical conduct. Almost three weeks ago, Orlando Zapata Tamayo -- a prisoner of conscience -- died after more than 80 days on hunger strike. Only after Zapata's condition had irretrievably worsened did authorities transfer him to a hospital.

Like Fariñas, Zapata was black. Well before either raised his voice in opposition, both had suffered racial discrimination. While beating him to a pulp, prison guards often rained racial epithets on Zapata.

Black dissidents especially incur the regime's wrath: How dare they be so uppity?

Hunger strikes are a nonviolent tactic of resistance. Mahatma Gandhi, British and American suffragettes, Cesar Chávez, Guantánamo detainees and Tibetan exiles all used them in the hope of righting wrongs. Whether in prison or on the outside, no one puts his or her life on the line without deeply held convictions.

That's why Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's comments comparing Cuban political prisoners with common criminals in Brazilian jails are so unconscionable. How many thieves and murderers have died on hunger strikes? What about the 10 Irish republican prisoners who perished between May and August of 1981? Did Lula then consider their hunger strikes "a pretext for human rights"? Were Bobby Sands and the others just "pretending" to want the status of political prisoners?

The 10 Irish hunger strikers cleared the way for Sinn Fein to enter politics. Sands won an off-year election to the House of Commons. The IRA sought maximum publicity, which it got, but many in its ranks eventually saw the value of ballots over bullets. Winning elections disproved British claims that the IRA had no popular support.

Unlike the Irish republicans, the opposition in Cuba is nonviolent. Cuban victims, however, don't usually grab headlines.

The world noticed Zapata only after his death, as it surely will Fariñas if he passes. The regime also balks at calling a spade a spade, branding opponents "mercenaries." Dissidents or, for that matter, ordinary Cubans don't have the freedoms that Irish republicans had when not in prison. If only Cuba held free elections for opponents to run without fear and maybe even win!

Like some teenagers, the regime never accepts responsibility for anything. Raúl Castro "lamented" Zapata's death but blamed the United States. Now Granma casts a similar net around Fariñas. He's an agent, a counterrevolutionary, a showman. It's Washington's fault.

That jeremiad has long been ringing hollow.

We are in the midst of a before-and-after moment. Zapata's death and Fariñas' hunger strike have raised the regime's ante. "If Coco Fariñas dies, I will follow in his steps no matter the consequences," said Felix Bonne Carcasses on Wednesday.

I don't know if there's a rolling hunger strike starting in Cuba where Bonne would take the place of Fariñas if he dies and so on. What I do know is that the regime is sailing on as if it were business as usual. Letting Zapata die threw a wrench into the incipient U.S.-Cuba thaw and the full normalization of relations with the European Union.

Unless Havana does something dramatic such as freeing all political prisoners, neither rapprochement will go further. That suits Havana's hard-liners just fine.

We'll see if, this time, we can all stump the regime rather than helping it along.

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