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A Political Prize, Unjustly Awarded

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On October 21, 2010, the European Parliament announced the recipient of the 2010 Sakharov Prize "for freedom of thought," and awarded it to the Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas Hernández. According to the European organization, Fariñas joins "a long line of dissidents and defenders of human rights and freedom of thought." The president of the Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, pointed out that the opponent of the government in Havana "was prepared to risk his health and life to change things in Cuba." This is the third time in nine years that a Cuban opposition figure has received this distinction, following the Ladies in White in 2005 and Oswaldo Payá en 2002.

It is worth reviewing the personal journey of Guillermo Fariñas and his entrance into the world of dissidence in Cuba, before evoking the politicization of the Sakharov Prize.

Born January 3, 1962, Guillermo Fariñas is a former soldier who served in Angola in 1981 in that African nation's battle for independence and against South Africa's racist regime. For a considerable period he was a fervent admirer of the revolutionary process and his father had participated on the side of Fidel Castro against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the appearance of Cuba's first economic difficulties, Fariñas abandoned the Communist Youth, without taking, nevertheless, a political position against the government in Havana.

It was only in 2003 that Fariñas made a 180-degree ideological switch and turned his back on the ideas he had defended in years past. He joined the dissidents and founded the press agency Cubanacan Press, financed by "anti-Castro Cuban-Americans," according to the Associated Press. The European Parliament indicates that he is "an advocate of non-violence" and that he has carried out "no less than 23 hunger strikes to attract attention to the oppression of Cuban dissidents and to demand freedom of access to the internet." It also stresses that Fariñas was sentenced to eleven years in prison -- actually nine, but he was jailed a little more than one year -- without disclosing the reasons for the various convictions.

At no time did the European organization claim that his stints in prison were due to his political activity for the simple reason that his imprisonments were the result of common crimes. The European Parliament's discretion with respect to Fariñas' criminal history is understandable, since his illegal acts discredit the assertion of the "non-violent" nature of the 2010 Sakharov Prize.

In fact, Fariñas has a serious criminal history. In 1995 he was sentenced to a term of three years parole and fined 600 pesos after violently assaulting a woman, a work colleague at the institute of health where he held the position of psychologist, causing her multiple wounds to the face and arms. He then carried out his first hunger strike.

In 2002 in the city of Santa Clara, in the province of Las Villas, Fariñas assaulted an old man with a cane. The old man, severely injured, was rushed to the hospital where he underwent surgery to remove his spleen. After this crime, Fariñas was sentenced to 5 years and 10 months in prison. He again carried out a hunger strike and on December 5, 2003, was granted an early release for health reasons.

In regard to this incident, the press agency EFE limited itself to stating that Fariñas was sentenced "for the crimes of public disorder and assault," without providing more details. For its part, the Associated Press was more explicit and pointed out that "some of his judicial problems were due to an assault on a work colleague and other violent behavior".

In 2005 Fariñas began another hunger strike and demanded that the Cuban government install internet access in his home. He met with the US diplomatic delegation in Havana, the US Interests Section, which finances his activities. Fariñas readily acknowledges this fact. The French daily Libération writes that "Fariñas has never denied receiving 'donations' from the US Interests Section to obtain a computer and to exercise his profession of 'independent journalist' on the internet."

But Guillermo Fariñas really became a media sensation as of February 24, 2010, when he began a hunger strike at his home that lasted until July 8, 2010, to demand the freeing of those he identifies as "prisoners of opinion," in reference to those opposition figures sentenced for accepting financing from the United States. Indeed, in this regard, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), an agency of the federal government, admits that it finances the Cuban opposition. According to USAID, the amount of assistance destined to the Cuban dissidents increased to $15.62 million in fiscal year 2009. "The vast majority of this money is intended for individuals on the ground in Cuba. Our objective is to maximize the amount of support that benefits Cubans on the island."

The government organization also emphasizes the following point: "We have trained hundreds of journalists over a ten year period whose work has appeared in major international news outlets." This admission destroys the statements about the independent nature of opposition journalists in Cuba. Trained and financed by the United States, these journalists respond first and foremost to the interests of Washington, whose objective is, as official State Department documents state, "regime change" on the island.

From a legal point of view, this reality places those dissidents who accept the inducements offered by USAID in the position of agents in the service of a foreign power, which represents a grave violation of not just the Cuban penal code, but that of any county in the world. Questioned about this, the Agency limited itself to pointing out that "no one is required to accept or take part in any United States Government programs if they don't want to."

Fariñas' last protest seriously affected his health and he only survived thanks to the medical attention given him by the Cuban authorities. Thankful, he did not hesitate to express his appreciation to the medical team that cared for him, during an interview given to Spanish television while he was hospitalized.

Guillermo Fariñas has never had any problems expressing his opinion with regard to the Cuban government. He has enjoyed total freedom of expression. To convince oneself of this, it is enough to take a look at statements he made during his last hunger strike. During his time in the hospital, Fariñas gave regular interviews to the western press, and virulently attacked the island's authorities. Here are some excerpts of an interview he gave to Reporters without Borders on April 8, 2010: "The Castro regime is totally reactionary, archaic, completely lacking in flexibility, of humanism, with such marked cruelty that it lets its opponents die publicly." Fariñas doesn't hesitate to refer to "the totalitarian Cuban regime" and denounces without difficulty "the cruelties, abuses, and tortures" that are committed on the island.

Fariñas is not exempt from contradictions. While he appears very critical of the Cuban system and compares life on the island to hell, he refuses to emigrate in spite of an offer of refuge
from Spain. In fact, it is odd to refuse to live in the world's ninth most powerful economy and instead choose a small Third World country which suffers from undeniable economic difficulties aggravated by the US-imposed embargo and by the global crisis. There is a reason for it. If he leaves Cuba, Fariñas would receive no financial assistance, either from the United States or from the European Union.

The politicization of the Sakharov Prize

The European Parliament chose, for the third time in nine years, a Cuban dissident for the Sakharov Prize, despite the quality of the other two candidates, the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence and the Ethiopian opposition figure Birtukan Mideksa.

Breaking the Silence was created by Israeli soldiers and former combatants and "shows the Israeli public the reality of the Israeli occupation as seen through the eyes of the soldiers. It participates in the debate about the impact of the prolonged occupation of the Palestinian territories," according to the Parliament. In regard to Birtukan Mideksa, she is a politician, former Ethiopian judge, and opposition leader, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2008 for denouncing the incarceration of opposition members in her country, and who was later freed in October 2010.

It is not a matter of criticizing Guillermo Fariñas for his actions. It requires a certain dose of personal valor to risk one's life by a hunger strike. Nevertheless, the European Parliament's choice is debatable to the degree that it uses political parameters first and foremost. Indeed, dominated as it is by the right, the fact that it once again rewarded the Cuban opposition, to the detriment of everyone else who truly risks their lives in the world to defend the cause of human rights and freedoms, can not be the result of mere chance.

In addition, this recognition comes at the same time that the Cuban government has moved to free almost all the prisoners designated as "political" by Amnesty International. The last thirteen, following the liberation of 39 people since July 2010, will be freed before the end of November 2010, according to the agreement between Havana and the Cuban Catholic Church.

One can only say that the Parliament's decision is based above all on ideological criteria and casts a shadow over the credibility of the official objectives of the Sakharov Prize, namely, the defense of human rights.

Some European parliamentarians have criticized the decision, made by a select committee behind closed doors during the Conference of Presidents, and not in plenary session in the presence of all the deputies. The Euro-deputy Willy Meyer of the group, Izquierda Unida (United Left) has lamented the "ideological decision that has nothing to do with the defense of human rights in the entire world, in a moment of wars and grave problems in which thousands of human rights activists are persecuted on the planet, while their work is not recognized or is hidden." For her part, Maria Muñiz, spokesperson for the Spanish socialists in the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Parliament, deplored the fact that the rest of the candidates were ignored and that the "progressive liberation of the dissident Cuban prisoners" has not been taken into account."

Guillermo Fariñas has chosen, as have those Cuban dissidents sensationalized by the western press, to live off his dissident activities, which offer undeniable financial opportunities and a standard of living much higher than other Cubans living in a context marked by economic difficulties and material scarcity. The Sakharov Prize is not just an honorary distinction. It also comes with a significant economic reward of 50,000 euros. That is a considerable sum, in particular for Cubans, when one understands the realities of the island's social system. As an example, Fariñas has not had to pay one cent for his hospitalization of several months duration, he owns his own home as do 85 percent of Cubans, and he benefits from the food card that permits him to obtain food products without cost.

Guillermo Fariñas has the complete right to openly express his disagreement with the political system that he defended until he was thirty years old. He should not be criticized for that. Neither should his criminal history be covered up. Nevertheless it is difficult to believe, considering the powerful western political interests and media that support him, that his action is truly independent and only focused on the question of human rights. By accepting the inducements of Washington -- which openly finances the Cuban opposition -- he puts himself at the service of a policy designed to overthrow the Cuban government.

Translated by David Brookbank

Doctor in Iberian and Latin American Studies from the University of Paris-Sorbonne-Paris IV, Salim Lamrani is a lecturer at the University of Paris-Sorbonne-Paris IV and University of Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, as well as a French journalist, specializing in relations between Cuba and the United States. He has just published Cuba: Ce que les médias ne vous diront jamais. Available in libraries and on Amazon: http://www.amazon.fr/Cuba-Medias-Vous-Diront-Jamais/dp/2953128417/ref=pd_rhf_p_t_1 For additional requests, contact him directly at: lamranisalim@yahoo.fr , Salim.Lamrani@univ-mlv.fr