June 8, 1999
By Andrew Cawthorne
HAVANA, June 7 (Reuters) - Several dozen Cuban opposition activists began a fast on Monday that they say will last 40 days in solidarity with political prisoners and in protest against President Fidel Castro's government.
"We are sacrificing our bodies for 40 days, representing 40 years of this government, to say: 'Stop the injustice now!'," one of the event organizers, Elias Biscet, said.
About 25 members of seven small and illegal opposition and human rights groups participated in the start of the fast at an activist's house in the run-down October 10 zone of Havana.
"We are here to ask God to grant our heart-felt petitions: freedom of all political prisoners by the communist Castro government, and respect for human rights in the country," added Biscet, who heads the dissident Lawton Foundation group.
Organizers said a core group would be avoiding solid foods, but taking vitamins and food crushed into liquid form, for the entire 40 days. Others would join the fast for symbolic periods of a minimum six hours, and some simultaneous fasts were being held in the provinces, they added.
"We might have to finish the fast in prison," Biscet said, anticipating that such an open act of opposition could bring a firm reaction from Cuban authorities.
Havana denies the existence of political prisoners in Cuba, saying all inmates are there for legitimate reasons, including "counter-revolutionary" crimes stipulated in Cuba's penal code.
The government also angrily rejects criticism of rights abuses, denying outright, for example, the most commonly-leveled accusation that it suppresses freedom of expression.
When discussing rights issues, Cuban officials frequently point to their internationally-praised social policies, and highlight abuses abroad such as violence and racism in the United States or what Havana calls NATO's "genocide" in Kosovo.
The Havana protestors said their event was intended as part of a campaign of civil disobedience that was also being backed by anti-Castro, Cuban-American exile groups in the United States.
"The brothers in exile are also supporting us, carrying out activities abroad to support the cause of freedom for the Cuban people," Biscet said.
One U.S. group, for example, sent vitamins as a supplement for the protestors, the organizers said.
The house where the fast was being held, belonging to activist Migdalia Rosado, included a large photo of deceased, Miami-based exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa, next to a picture of Christ. He had headed the powerful Cuban American National Foundation which Castro calls a "terrorist" group.
Also on the wall of the house were religious texts, photos of alleged murdered Cuban activists, and a list of names of children among those who died when a tugboat sank in 1994 as its occupants tried to flee the island to Florida. Opposition groups claimed Cuban boats pursuing the tugboat caused it to sink -- an allegation denied by Havana.
The Cuban government says the ruling Communist Party allows dissent and argument within its structures, and generally labels opposition activists as mercenaries and traitors in the pocket of the U.S. government.
Scores of tiny, illegal opposition groups exist in Cuba, but have no access to the media, cannot legally hold public meetings and do not seriously threaten the Communist Party's political dominance and one-party political system.
The internal dissident movement is generally perceived by analysts and diplomats here as relatively weak, marginalized and handicapped by both state control and internal divisions.
Moderate opposition groups in Cuba estimate there are about 350 political prisoners here -- a figure general accepted by foreign governments. The organizers of Monday's event, however, noted some estimates of up to 1,500 political prisoners, and said their own calculation was "more than 1,000."
Various of the protestors claimed to be ex-political prisoners themselves.
Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited
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