The president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has become entangled in a controversy for having compared Cuban political prisoners with jailed criminals and was even severely criticized by members of his own party.
In a long interview with the Associated Press agency Lula said the Cuban legal and penitentiary system should be respected and criticized hunger strikes as a means of protest to call attention on human rights abuses.
But in spite of the public controversy and the uproar over the confusion, the ruling coalition did not vote in Congress a condemnation of the Cuban regime over the lack of freedom and basic rights.
Raul Jungmann from the Brazilian opposition Socialist Popular Party presented a motion before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Lower House condemning “human rights violations in Cuba” but the coalition headed by Lula’s Workers’ party vetoed the initiative.
“It is regretful and disappointing that the congressional support of government refuses to see the flagrant human rights violations in Cuba as if we had enough with the disastrous statements from President Lula,” said Jungmann.
The lawmaker was referring to the AP interview in which he disqualified hunger strikes from Cuban political prisoners and compared them to ordinary criminals incarcerated in Brazilian jails.
“We have to respect the decisions of the Cuban legal system and the government to arrest people depending on the laws of Cuba, like I want them to respect Brazil. Hunger strikes can’t be a human rights excuse to free people. Imagine if all the jailed criminals in São Paulo went on a fast to demand they be set free,” he was quoted by AP.
The release of the interview coincided with a new petition from the Cuban dissidence addressed to Lula asking him to intercede before Raul Castro in favor of political prisoners, particularly Guillermo Fariñas who has been on a hunger strike for over two weeks.
However according to the Brazilian embassy in Havana the letter addressed to Lula by the “Committee Orlando Zapata Tamayo for the liberation of Cuban political prisoners” was not received because it was not signed.
In late February, Lula met in Cuba with Fidel and Raul Castro just hours after Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo died from a prolonged hunger strike. At the time, he told Brazil’s Agência Estado news agency that he “deeply regretted” Zapata’s death, but Lula refused to meet with opposition groups in Cuba
Lula later stated he had received no petition from the Cuban opposition and even more embarrassing he remained silent next to Cuban president Raul Castro when he described Zapata Tamayo as an “ordinary criminal” and blamed Washington for what was happening.
“The president expressed himself poorly or he was misunderstood,” said Mauricio Rands, a federal deputy from the Workers Party. “We don’t accept that somebody can be detained just because they have disagreements with the government. The President is well aware of the difference between a political prisoner and an ordinary prisoner.”
From Cuba political prisoner Fariñas was quoted by Brazil’s Folha de S. Paulo columnist Flavia Marreiro saying that “with that statement, President Lula shows his commitment to the tyranny of Castro and his contempt for the political prisoners and their families.” He added “a majority of the Cuban people feel betrayed by a president who was once a political prisoner.”
Lula led worker strikes against Brazil’s military regime and was imprisoned for 31 days in 1980 for his political activities. He was quoted saying that “I’ve been on hunger strikes and I would never do it again; I think it’s insane to mistreat your own body.”
The Brazilian president said he thought there was hypocrisy at play in the criticism of Cuba. “It’s not just in Cuba that people died from hunger strikes,” he said.
Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim came to the rescue of the president. “It’s one thing to defend democracy, human rights, the right to free speech,” said Amorim. “It’s another thing to be supporting everything that is dissident in the world. That is not (our) role.”
Celso Amorim said Brazilian trade and its development projects were helping Cubans and said it was in the hands of the US to bring the quickest changes to the nation. “If someone is interested in creating political evolution in Cuba, I have a quick prescription: End the embargo.”
Columnist Merval Pereira wrote in Wednesday’s edition of the Brazilian newspaper O Globo that “the comments of President Lula are worrying because they denote that he made a terrible confusion between democratic regimes and dictatorships, treating them equally.”
The European Parliament adopted a resolution on Thursday strongly condemning the “avoidable and cruel” death of Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata and voicing its concern at the “alarming state” of another prisoner, Guillermo Fariñas.
MEPs also repeat their call to the Cuban government for the “immediate and unconditional” release of all political prisoners and urge the EU to begin a “structured dialogue” with Cuban civil society.
Parliament, which approved the resolution by 509 votes to 30 with 14 abstentions, strongly condemns the “avoidable and cruel” death of political dissident Orlando Zapata, after a hunger strike of 85 days, and expresses its solidarity and sympathy with his family.
MEPs also condemn the pre-emptive detention of activists and the government’s attempt to prevent the family of Orlando Zapata from holding his funeral and paying their last respects.
The resolution, which was tabled jointly by several political groups in Parliament – the EPP, Socialist, Liberal, Conservative and Reformist, Green and Europe of Freedom and Democracy – calls on the Cuban government for the “immediate and unconditional” release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience and deplores the absence of any “significant signs” of response by the Cuban authorities to the calls by the EU and the international community for all political prisoners to be released and for fundamental freedoms to be fully respected.
MEPs also urge the Council and Commission to step up action to demand the release of political prisoners and safeguard the work of human rights defenders.
The resolution calls on the EU High Representative, Catherin Ashton, and Commissioner responsible for cooperation, Kristalina Georgieva, “immediately to begin a structured dialogue with Cuban civil society and with those who support a peaceful transition in Cuba.” There are Community development cooperation mechanisms, such as the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights, that could help achieve this.
Parliament also urges the EU institutions to give their unconditional support and full encouragement to the launching of a peaceful process of political transition to multi-party democracy in Cuba.
In addition, Parliament voices concern at the situation of the political prisoners and dissidents who went on hunger strike following Zapata’s death and welcomes the fact that most of them are now taking food again. However, it draws attention to “the alarming state of the journalist and psychologist Guillermo Fariñas, whose continuation of the hunger strike could have fatal consequences.”
Lastly, the resolution expresses solidarity with the entire Cuban people and support for them in their progress towards democracy and respect and promotion of fundamental freedoms.