The Guardian newspaper analyzes the impact of Guillermo Fariñas’ hunger strike on international perceptions on Raúl Castro’s regime.
It is not the face Cuba‘s leaders wanted to project: the eyes are sunken, the cheeks hollow, the expression grim. Guillermo Fariñas is entering his sixth week of hunger strike a gaunt, stricken figure and a symbol of despair under President Raúl Castro. The dissident journalist stopped eating and drinking on 24 February in protest at repression that has derailed hopes of greater tolerance on the communist island.
When Raul formally succeeded his ailing brother, Fidel, last year there was talk of easing political and economic restrictions and a thaw with the US. Raúl signaled reform and Barack Obama promised a “new beginning” after half a century of enmity. A year later those hopes are ashes and Fariñas’s doleful gaze captures a bleak mood infecting diplomats, analysts and ordinary Cubans.
First came disappointment over economic reforms. Raúl’s efforts to boost moribund agriculture and industry were timid and no match for a global financial crisis that in effect bankrupted the government, forcing it to slash subsidies and salaries. Food production in Havana province is 40% below target this year, heralding bare shop shelves and markets. Then on 23 February Orlando Zapato Tayamo, a political prisoner, died after an 85-day hunger strike for better conditions, triggering international condemnation and souring Havana’s relations with the European Union.
Fariñas started his hunger strike a day later to demand the release of political prisoners and has vowed to continue until death if necessary. As he turns more skeletal, criticism of Havana grows. When a pro-government mob roughed up the Ladies in White, relatives of the prisoners, angry rallies in Miami and Los Angeles denounced the regime and Obama accused it of responding “to the aspirations of the Cuban people with a clenched fist”.
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The revolution is hardly about to fall. Fidel remains a towering figure, the government is firmly in control and Latin America, China and Russia are queuing up for business deals. Still, it cannot be encouraging that Silvio Rodríguez, Cuba’s best-known folk singer and pro-government artist, last week called for “conceptual revisions” and said the revolution should drop the R to become “evolution”.
Image: A doctor supports Cuban opposition activist Guillermo Fariñas, who is on hunger strike. Photograph: ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images