June 15, 1999
By DANA CALVO, Sun-Sentinel Staff Writer
Web-posted: 9:08 p.m. June 14, 1999
With tendrils of civil disobedience wending through several Cuban towns, 100 exiles in South Florida began a "symbolic fast" on Monday, insisting the combined demonstrations might force the communist government to release political prisoners.
But experts say the South Florida fast, the third such demonstration by exiles in as many months, will not accomplish much.
"The Cuban government isn't going to pay attention to the people fasting in Cuba, and they're certainly not going to pay attention to the demonstrators here," said Barbara Joe, who monitors Cuba for Amnesty International USA.
"But it's not an entirely futile exercise, because it gives the Cuban fasters more resolve," Joe said. "It gives them solidarity."
Experts say South Florida demonstrations have the potential to influence U.S. officials, as they apparently did when four hunger strikers outside Krome Detention Center in Miami-Dade County helped convince immigration officials to release their sons, and when an exile's hunger strike in downtown Miami pressured the U.S. government to release his group's confiscated boat.
But exiles have never been able to influence Cuban President Fidel Castro, who dismisses them as enemies of the revolution. And the fast in South Florida is largely a gesture, with little risk that anyone will fall ill.
The demonstration began in Migdalia Rosado's house on Havana's Tamarindo Street.
About two dozen activists swore off food and vowed to take only liquids with crushed vitamins for 40 days -- one day for each year of Castro's revolution.
The activists want amnesty and release for all political prisoners. Castro denies the prisoners exist, even though four dissidents were sentenced to several years in prison this year for criticizing an official document.
The harshest prison term -- five years -- went to Vladimiro Roca, who also fasted on Monday from his jail cell to show solidarity for the activists, his wife said.
"I'm pretty impressed with this," said Eusebio Mujal-Leon, a Cuba expert and chairman of Georgetown University's government department. "In the Cuban context, it's an important development. You're having more than individual resistance. You're starting to get shared resistance."
The Miami-Dade County demonstration also will last for 40 days, but with rotating schedules of a few exiles fasting for each day. Rosado's sons, Jaime and Jesus, are two of the exiles signed up to participate in the fast organized by Cuban Municipalities in Exile.
But Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said the public's attention span is short and unlikely to outlast the 40 days of a fast.
"After a while, it sort of reaches a point of diminishing returns, unless there's some new element to it," she said.
The last day of the Miami-Dade fast is July 16, the second anniversary of the dissidents' arrest.
"Our work is to support the work they're doing inside of Cuba," Jorge A. Acosta said as 10 other exiles milled about the headquarters on Monday morning. "We want to amplify the echo of what they're doing."
However, exile groups aren't just reacting to the small but significant unrest in Cuba.
Protesters on the island and community leaders here said the fast was funded and coordinated by South Florida exile groups. Those same exile groups coordinated copycat fasts in every province around the island.
Angel Polanco, an independent journalist in Havana who allows the protesters to use his telephone, said the activism has spread to nine of the country's 14 provinces.
"There are 22 people fasting now," he said on Monday, hours after a conference with activists and relatives of political prisoners.
Polanco said Cuban authorities had neither harassed activists nor visited Tamarindo Street.
Instead, he said, more than 100 ordinary Cubans had come by the house in the past five days to show their support.
Copyright 1999, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive, Inc.
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