Cuban dissident becomes weak from hunger strike; church may step in

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The Miami Herald

Internationally-known Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas is growing gravely weak from a two-week-old hunger strike to protest human rights abuses while the Catholic Church has emerged as a possible mediator between the opposition leader and the government of Raúl Castro.

Fariñas, who is refusing any food or water, said Tuesday that he feels “very weak” but vowed to continue with a hunger strike that now includes some 20 other activists from across the island.

“I can hardly take a bath by myself and feel very tired,” Fariñas said by telephone from his home in the central city of Santa Clara. A doctor that visited his home Tuesday recommended hospitalization but Fariñas refused.

The dissident, who received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2010, said he was beaten on July 19 by two police officers when he approached them to inquire about the detention of another member of the opposition movement. Fariñas said was held inside a car for an hour and was repeatedly beaten while officers warned him to suspend any plans for community service projects.

“They are beating people up so that one does not get involved with socially-conscious projects anymore,” he said. “While they were hitting me, they told me they I could not distribute toys to children anymore, that I could not organize communal birthday parties, day care centers, excursions to the beach, rebuild any more homes for people…”

Fariñas said he believes the Cuban agents were trying to instill fear, “beat me with impunity” and without consequences.

Instead, the dissident launched a hunger strike, refusing to ingest food or water, until the Castro government publicly declares that it will stop beating opponents and harass small business owners or the self-employed known as cuentapropistas. Fariñas also is demanding a meeting between opposition members and a government official designated by Castro.

Last week, the opposition leader was admitted to the emergency room at a local hospital due to dehydration but he quickly requested to return home. Many fear for his health because of his frequent use of hunger strikes as a means of protest.

Dr. Eneida O. Roldan, chief executive officer at Florida International University’s Health system, said Fariñas could be facing a precarious situation.

“The average time a human being can be without drinking water is about two weeks albeit dependent on the physical and health conditions of the person and the environmental conditions of his or her location,” Roldan said. “Without food is a bit longer: usually four weeks. Again with the caveat of current body fat and physical and health conditions of the person.”

Fariñas is the most high-profile of the dissidents who have begun fasts and hunger strikes across the island to protest the beatings and arbitrary raids frequently launched against activists.

Carlos Amel Oliva, the youth leader of the Unión Patriótica de Cuba(Patriotic Union of Cuba) also has been on a hunger strike that has stretched for more than 20 days. Another 17 members of that organization also have declared a hunger strike or staged fasts, including two members who are hospitalized in Santiago de Cuba.

Meanwhile, high-level representatives of the Catholic Church in Cuba met with Fariñas over the weekend to discuss a possible resolution.

On Saturday, he was visited by Santa Clara Bishop Arturo González Amador, who returned Sunday with the first secretary of the Apostolic Nunciature in Cuba, the Rev. José Manuel Alcaide Borreguero. The latter was there as an envoy of Pope Francis and he presented several proposals, according to Frente Antitotalitario Unido (United Antitotalitarian Front), the organization headed by Fariñas.

The opposition leader said he agreed that the Holy See and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba could act as mediators with the Cuban government but opposed the involvement of the newly appointed archbishop of Havana, Juan de la Caridad García, because it was said “that he was there to help to build a prosperous and sustainable socialism, therefore he ceased to be neutral.”

Borreguero could not be immediately reached for comment. But he recently told Diario de Cuba that the church was not currently serving as mediator. “For now we are not mediators; I have to communicate with my superiors because I can’t do anything of my own accord,” he said.

“To have a mediator, both sides have to accept it,” said Fariñas. “He cannot say they are mediators, if the other party has not accepted yet.”

Fariñas declined to elaborate, saying that Borreguero had requested “discretion.”

The Cuban Catholic Church has gained prominence in recent years serving as a mediator between the governments of Cuba and the United States during months of secret negotiations, and interceding in the release of the 75 dissidents jailed in 2010.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of State, through its spokesman John Kirby, publicly expressed concern about the physical state of Fariñas, Oliva and other activists on a hunger strike and expressed solidarity with those who struggle for human rights and fundamental rights as freedom of expression and association.

Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said in a statement that the activists and Cuban dissidents “feel compelled to resort to these measures for the world to see the evil of tyranny they face every day.” He added that it was “shameful ” that President Barack Obama’s “failed policy of appeasement…has done nothing to help the defenders of democracy, but has emboldened their oppressors.”

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