Suicidal tendencies

José Daniel Ferrer García

I confess to mixed feelings about perhaps the only form of protest available to Cuba’s political prisoners: the hunger strike. Protest-by-suicide is never acceptable, and a future free Cuba cannot afford to have these men die. It needs their courage and their leadership.

On the other hand, what else can they do? The dictatorship warehouses them like animals, and with “animals” convicted of murder and other violent crimes, in a vicious attempt to break their spirit, minds and bodies. It serves them shit that barely passes as food, and it denies them the most basic of medical attention.

How else can they protest on behalf of their country, and their own dignity?

I am convinced men like the political prisoner José Daniel Ferrer García do not want to die, if only because they know that that is what the dictatorship wants. While the tactic of a hunger strike is a bad one because of its possible consequence, its use by Ferrer and other political prisoners reveals a courage and a strength of purpose that are invaluable weapons in the struggle against tyranny.

The dictatorship responds in the only way it knows how — as a dictatorship — providing even more legitimacy for the protest against it.

Ferrer, a member of the Group of 75 imprisoned during the “black spring” of 2003, started a hunger strike last week after he was transferred from a prison in Guantánamo — the dictatorship has prisons there, too — to another in Las Tunas. He and other political prisoners were dispersed to other jails across the country after a protest at the Guantánamo prison.

Before his arrest, Ferrer worked as an independent journalist and as an activist for the Christian Liberation Movement’s Varela Project. On Monday, MCL president Oswaldo Payá warned that Ferrer’s life is in danger, and not just because of his hunger strike:

On his arrival to the “El Típico” prison, guards informed him that we would be jailed in a room with very dangerous inmates so he would be accosted and badly treated. At that point, he began his hunger strike and was sent to a cell where his life is in danger.

A large part of my misgivings about the use of hunger strikes is that previous protests have failed to elevate the profile of the struggle in Cuba, much less alter the behavior of the dictatorship. It is tempting to conclude that the prisoners who refuse to eat are just wasting their lives away for now reason.

Ferrer’s protest has generated some wider publicity, but Cuba is far from another Northern Ireland. Every time I read about another hunger strike by a Cuban political prisoners, I recall the 1980-81 hunger strikes by Irish Republicans held in British prisons. It is a potentially shaky comparison, as at least some of the Irish prisoners had been convicted of violent crimes and might quite accurately be described as “terrorists.” The worst the Castros have been able to say about Ferrer and others arrested during the “black spring” is that they are American “mercenaries.”

But the protests are similar. The Cubans, like the Irish before them, are seeking status as something much more than a common criminal, and the rights and recognition that come with that. They don’t want to wear prison uniforms, and they don’t want to be cut off from other political prisoners. They don’t want to be treated as animals.

I was barely a teenager, but I recall how the Irish protests generated worldwide attention, and pressure on the British government to submit to the protesters’ demands. And this was long before the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle could have turned them into celebrities.

The luck of the Irish — especially the Irish-Americans holding the levels of political and media influence in the United States — indeed.

Ten men eventually died, but it can be argued the cause of Irish Republicanism scored a political and propaganda victory over the British.

Today, similar protests in Cuba, against a tyranny far worse than anything the British ever did, gets barely a whimper of attention.

Hopefully, it will not take Ferrer’s death or that of any other Cuban political prisoner, to change that.

(Cross-posted at Uncommon Sense.)