Cuban dissident ends 134-day hunger strike |

Cuban dissident ends 134-day hunger strike

SANTA CLARA, Cuba (AP) – Cuban opposition activist Guillermo Farinas ended his 134-day hunger strike Thursday, following signs the communist government is making good on its promise to release 52 political prisoners.

Farinas drank sips of water at a hospital near his home in the central city of Santa Clara, said Licet Zamora, a spokeswoman for the 48-year-old psychologist and freelance journalist. Zamora described Farinas’ condition as “grave” after he recently suffered a potentially fatal blood clot in his neck.

The Cuban appeared in good spirits as he sat on the bed in his third-floor hospital room writing. Two nearby nurses attended to him and a group of relatives gathered in a nearby waiting room.

Kept alive by intravenous feeding, Farinas had refused food and water since shortly after the Feb. 23 death of fellow dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died following a lengthy prison hunger strike of his own behind bars.

President Raul Castro had said if Farinas died it would be his own fault. Farinas had demanded the release of dozens of political prisoners, but a deal between the government and officials from the Cuban Roman Catholic Church prompted him to give up the strike.

Under a Wednesday agreement brokered by visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, authorities promised to free five political prisoners as soon as possible and force them to head to Spain – then release 47 more in the next two or three months.

Shortly before Farinas made his announcement, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, called five prisoners to say they should prepare to be released and leave the country in coming days. Another six were being transferred to jails closer to their homes.

“I feel a bit nervous, happy, grateful to the Church and to Spain,” said Mireya Penton, mother of 33-year-old Lester Gonzalez, one of the five told he would be released. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

In Washington, meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton applauded the deal but said it was too long in coming. She refused to comment on what effect it might have on U.S.-Cuba relations.

“We were encouraged by the apparent agreement,” she told reporters at the State Department, adding later, “We welcome this. We think that’s a positive sign. It’s something that is overdue but nevertheless very welcome.”

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States is willing to give refuge to any of the political prisoners who wish it, but each should have the freedom to decide whether to stay in Cuba or leave.

As the first wave of inmates prepared to leave prison, relatives of those not included in the initial group waited on pins and needles.

Julia Nunez, whose activist husband Adolfo Fernandez was sentenced to 15 years in prison for treason, sat by the phone in her Havana apartment, clutching a photo of him and waiting for news. Suffering from the flu, she left the house only long enough to buy medicine, then rushed back.

The Communist Party newspaper Granma carried word of the agreement, and a bulletin about it was read throughout the day on state television – an unusual step as government media rarely mention the island’s small dissident community.

“Now that there has been such official declarations, and that this even came out in Granma, I’m very optimistic,” Nunez said.

The deal would mean freedom for the final 52 prisoners out of 75 opposition leaders, community activists and journalists jailed in a sweeping March 2003 crackdown on dissent.

Twenty-three members of that group had previously been paroled for health reasons, released into forced exile or had completed their prison sentences. They all deny being anti-government agents.

Cuban authorities say they are “mercenaries” who took money from the U.S. government and anti-Castro groups to destabilize the communist system.

According to Cuba’s leading human rights group, the number of island political prisoners has fallen to 167, the lowest total since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Wednesday’s deal would cut that number by nearly a third.

It would also be the largest group of political prisoners freed since the government released 299 inmates in an amnesty following the late Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998. Of those, about 100 were considered held for political reasons.

Returning to Madrid on Thursday, Moratinos said his county was willing to accept all 52 ex-prisoners once they have been released, but so far has formally agreed to take the first five. They will not be obligated to stay in his country.

It remained unclear if those freed later would have to leave the country as well.

Lidia Lima, wife of political prisoner Arnaldo Ramos, who is sentenced to 18 years in prison, said she wouldn’t except life in exile.

“I’m hopeful, but the problem is that neither my husband nor I want to live outside the country and that has me very upset,” she said. “We have always said we wouldn’t leave Cuba.”

Moratinos told Spanish news media the deal could spur the European Union to alter its Common Position on Cuba, which dates from 1996 and calls for advances on human rights and democracy before relations with the island can be normalized.

Improving things with Washington could be much tougher.

President Barack Obama once suggested it could be time for a new beginning with Cuba, but his administration wants to see the island embrace some political or social reforms – and it’s unknown if the agreement on political prisoners is enough.

“It’s clearly positive. It’s positive for the Cubans and positive for any steps the U.S. wants to take,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank that supports U.S. engagement with Cuba.

On June 30, the U.S. House of Representatives Agricultural Committee voted to lift the ban on American travel to Cuba, though the House Foreign Relations Committee may also consider the legislation before it moves to the House floor.

Shifter said the Obama administration could endorse that bill, even though “there’s a long road ahead for it.”

In a joint statement, the three Cuban-American U.S. congressional representatives said Washington’s sanctions have left Cuba’s ailing economy in such dire straights that it had no choice but to agree to release prisoners “in order to achieve diplomatic and economic relief.”

Shifter countered that the deal shows Cuba is more willing to negotiate under Raul Castro then it was when his brother Fidel was in charge.

“We’re going to hear, ‘Cuba has no choice, the economy is falling apart.’ But do we really care why?” he asked. “Isn’t the important fact that they are negotiating?”