June 9, 1999
By DANA CALVO, Staff Writer
Web-posted: 9:50 p.m. June 8, 1999
Joaquin Rafael Martinez, a 53-year-old engineer by training, woke up on Tuesday morning with only one blanket between him and the floor of a Havana home crowded with more than two dozen demonstrators.
Just before noon, he walked to a nearby house equipped with a phone. For the next few hours Martinez fielded calls from South Florida exiles anxious to know the progress of the protest they had publicized and partially-funded.
By planning to fast for 40 days, the demonstrators hope to win amnesty for the country's unknown number of political prisoners -- prisoners the Cuban government says do not exist.
Martinez, who can't get a job in Cuba and has declared himself a fulltime dissident, said 17 South Florida exile groups have sent "good support and moral support," to the protesters.
"We must provide for those patriots," said Julio Cabarga of the Miami-based Cuban Municipalities in Exile. "Once a person declares himself in any way against the regime, he's kicked out of his place of employment, so he has no way to feed his family."
Many of South Florida's Cuban exiles convened last Saturday to start up the public relations machine for the dissidents, Cabarga said. His group's headquarters, a converted house in northwest Miami-Dade County, was designated as command central for the protest on the communist-ruled island.
"Here in exile, we designated the building of Cuban Municipalities of Exiles to be the center of operations, to receive information and divulge the information, nationally and internationally," he said. "We alerted reporters in Havana and had a program on Radio Marti."
Cabarga said exiles were providing spiritual, moral and sometimes economic support for the dissidents. But he would not divulge how much money had been sent to individuals participating in the fast.
Ninoska Perez, spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation, the most powerful anti-Castro lobbying group in the country, also declined to specify the amount of money sent to the dissidents. "It only gets these people into trouble," she said.
Martinez has never been convicted of a crime. But he said he has been detained for up to 15 days for suspected activity against the government.
Another demonstrator, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, was fired from his post after standing up at a hospital meeting and speaking out against abortion, Perez said.
Biscet and Martinez are part of a coalition of four Cuban opposition groups who launched the protest on Monday, Perez said.
In the past, one of the groups, the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, used CANF's short wave radio station to broadcast messages.
The other three groups are The 30th of November Democratic Party, which focuses on human rights issues; National Civic Union, which links families on the island to relatives jailed in Cuba; and Naturpaz, an environmental group that opposes tourist resorts on precious Cuban land.
Martinez and his colleagues have restricted their diets to liquids mixed with crushed vitamins. Each of the demonstration's 40 days represents one year President Fidel Castro has been in power.
The fast is being held at the home of Migdalia Rosado, and about 25 participants have been sleeping on blankets on the floor, Martinez said.
On the walls of Rosado's home are homages to leaders in the South Florida exile community, including photographs of the four flyers shot out of the sky above the straits of Florida by Cuban MiGs, and a portrait of the late Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of CANF.
In language typical of the Cuban government, authorities deny there is opposition on the island -- only enemies of the revolution. But dozens of dissidents on the island report being fired and kicked out of their government controlled housing for speaking out against Castro's policies.
In February, a rigid anti-free speech law was passed unanimously by Cuban lawmakers. It brought quick and fierce response from members of the international community. Cuba watchers described the legislation as one of the most threatening to date for promoters of human rights.
"How can they say they're no political prisoners, when they pass a law earlier this year making it illegal to raise your voice?" Perez said.
The New York City-based Human Rights Watch has never been allowed to see the inside of Cuba's prisons. In 1995 the organization was allowed to meet with 24 convicts, but the meetings were taped and held in the administrative section of the prisons, said Sara DeCosse, spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch.
The international committee to the Red Cross has been barred from doing any type of human rights work on the island since the late 1980s.
"Cuba is the most restrictive in barring human rights monitoring in the Western hemisphere," DeCosse said. "Efforts to move the Cuban government toward genuine reform, haven't worked well for about 40 years now."On Tuesday, Martinez said he felt a bit dizzy, but otherwise was fine. He reminded a caller about the chronic food shortages on the Caribbean island nation.
"Here in Cuba there's been an involuntary hunger strike for years," he said.
Dana Calvo can be reached at email@example.com or 305-810-5004.
Copyright 1999, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive, Inc.
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