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25 Cuban Dissidents Launch a Hunger Strike

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This Monday several Cuban dissidents started a hunger strike which has already been joined by 25 people throughout the country. At a press conference, Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello explained that that the strikers are demanding the immediate release of Jorge Vázquez Chaviano, age 42. In 2011 this activist was sentenced for the supposed crime of "illicit economic activity," although many believe this charge masks retaliation for his dissident activities. This legal maneuver is common in Cuba and is intended to make it difficult for the international organizations to count the "political prisoners" and "prisoners of conscience" on the Island.

Vázquez Chaviano is currently being held in the Alambrada maximum security prison in the central province of Villa Clara. His sentence ended this past Sunday, September 9, but the prison authorities, instead of releasing him, moved him to a punishment cell. The spokesperson for the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), Elizardo Sanchez, also called for "an urgent response" from the government, for "the violation is such that it would justify a writ of habeas corpus."

Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello was the only woman imprisoned during the so-called Black Spring of 2003. At the press conference held Monday she also denounced the repression that State Security carried out against the internal opposition, independent journalists and human rights activists. As examples, the well known economist listed the police cordons established around people's homes, the surveillance, the retention of identity documents -- which Cubans are required to carry at all times -- the arbitrary arrests, and the forced entry into their homes to arrest them and confiscate their property.

Several activists consulted by this writer said they were worried about the outcome of this situation. Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, declared, "We are women who love our families and our lives, we are not in favor of hunger strikes, but we morally and spiritually support those who undertake them."

For his part, José Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) said, "Some feel they are forced to this as a last resort, mainly because the indifference of most Cubans has allowed this aggravation of the problems."

Former political prisoner and opposition leader Jorge Luis Garcia Perez (Antunez) is another who has joined the strike. As of Wednesday afternoon a total of 21 men and four women were among those refusing to ingest food. Nine of them are in prison. At Roque Cabello's house there are at least six members of the "Network of Community Communicators," which she heads, all refusing to eat until their demands are met.

Roque Cabello's health is deteriorating rapidly, in part because of her refusal to administer the medications necessary to control her diabetes. According to what I was able to verify, by the end of the second day of fasting she suffered from dry lips, trembling and numbness in her hands. At the end of the afternoon she had suffered a fainting spell.

The hunger strike has become a recurring method to put pressure on the Cuban government. One of the more publicized in recent years was carried out in 2010 by the journalist and psychologist Guillermo Fariñas, winner of the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize. After several days without food or water, Fariñas physically collapsed and was admitted to intensive care where he was fed intravenously. His persistence was the determining factor in the subsequent process of releases of the remaining prisoners of the Black Spring still in prison.