Open Letter to President Lula in Defense of Cuba’s Prisoners of Conscience

Fidel, Lula and Raul CastroA letter addressed to Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva by the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says that Brazil and the community of Latin American countries are the only ones with the ability to influence the Cuban government’s position on human rights and media freedom.

Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo death after 80 days of hunger strike “must have personally affected you as a former government opponent who was a victim of Brazil’s military dictatorship” points out the letter.

“Latin America, which has embarked on the road of unity and regional integration, used to suffer from dictatorships and repression. The Latin American democracies cannot continue to watch this situation drag on in Cuba without reacting. On this sad seventh anniversary of the “Black Spring,” Cuba is no longer a symbol. Cuba is no longer a taboo”, writes Jean Francois Julliard, the organization’s secretary general.
 
Mr. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
President of the Federative Republic of Brazil
Planalto Palace, Brasília, D.F.

Dear Mr. President,

Appeals were addressed to you by Cuban dissidents following imprisoned dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s tragic death on 23 February. You were in Havana when Zapata died after more than 80 days on hunger strike. Some people accused you of taking too long to express your regrets at Zapata’s demise.

Your comments nonetheless gave rise to hopes that you could act as a mediator with the Cuban authorities on the question of prisoners of conscience, as shown by the letter from a new Orlando Zapata Committee that the Brazilian embassy in Havana received on March 9.

Reporters Without Borders, an organization that defends press freedom worldwide, supports this initiative and urges you to act on it, despite your reluctance. Brazil and the community of Latin American countries are the only ones with the ability to influence the Cuban government’s position on human rights and media freedom. Zapata’s death personally affected you as a former government opponent who was a victim of Brazil’s military dictatorship.

At the same time, you said you wanted to respect a key principle of Brazilian diplomacy, which is to abstain from any direct interference in another country’s internal affairs. But in what way could reminding the Cuban authorities of fundamental and universal principles – such as the right to express one’s views freely, the right to freedom of movement and the right not to be arrested because of what one says or writes – be regarded as targeted and discriminatory interference?

In the course of a dialogue with Spain, the current holder of the European Union’s rotating presidency, the Cuban authorities subscribed to these principles by signing two United Nations conventions on civil and political rights. But it now refuses to ratify them. Why?

Like us, you rightly condemned the extremely grave human rights violations in Honduras after the June 2009 coup d’état. Brazil even allowed its embassy to be a refuge for the democratically-elected president who was overthrown by force. The Honduran de facto authorities accused you of interference but all you did was take a stand against injustice.

Must it be otherwise for Cuba, where 200 people are in prison solely because they think differently from their leaders? They include 25 journalists, bloggers and intellectuals who are serving long sentences just because they wanted to report the news without being controlled by the government.

One of them is our own correspondent, Ricardo González Alfonso, who was given a 20-year jail sentence during the March 2003 “Black Spring.” How could your government, which defends freedom of expression and access to information for its own citizens, ignore this appeal?

We are aware that Cuba has long been a symbol in Latin America. The 1959 revolution overthrew a dictatorship. For the past 50 years, Cuba has been subjected to an absurd embargo that is unfair for the population but useful to the government.

During a recent visit to Haiti, which owes a lot to the Brazilian presence, we were able to see the real effectiveness of the Cuban medical brigades – a source of national pride – in the assistance they were giving to the victims of the earthquake.

But none of this absolves the Cuban government of the fate it inflicts on its opponents. It does not excuse the brutal treatment and humiliation of journalists, activists, trade unionists and their families. It does not justify the fact that Cubans are unable to access the Internet freely or travel abroad without permission.

But anyone pointing out this other Cuban reality is unfortunately exposed to hate propaganda from those who think they are protecting Cuba’s honour but are in fact just defending a regime that that has run out of arguments.

The future of Cuba and its institutions is a matter for Cubans, but Cuba’s human rights violations concern the international community and the conscience of the world, as they do in any country where these rights are flouted.

To be respected, the Cuban government must be respectable. That is the meaning of the resolution that was adopted by the European Parliament on March 11, in an almost unanimous vote involving all of it political currents.

The need to act is urgent. The journalist Guillermo Fariñas Hernández has begun a hunger strike in Zapata’s memory to press for the release of prisoners of conscience. We urge him to stop but he says he is ready to die. Other dissidents will do the same in the absence of any effort by the Cuban authorities and if the silence from Cuba’s brother countries in Latin America continues.

How does the Cuban government respond to the distress of these people? By persisting in its efforts to smear their reputation. Latin America, which has embarked on the road of unity and regional integration, used to suffer from dictatorships and repression.

The Latin American democracies cannot continue to watch this situation drag on in Cuba without reacting. On this sad seventh anniversary of the “Black Spring,” Cuba is no longer a symbol. Cuba is no longer a taboo.

I thank you in advance for your reply, which I undertake to publish, with your agreement.

Respectfully,
Jean-François Julliard
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general 

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