The European Parliament awarded its top human rights prize on Thursday to Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas, whose hunger strike this year helped pressure Havana into releasing political prisoners.
Farinas, a 48-year-old psychologist, journalist and former soldier, has conducted more than 20 hunger strikes in the last two decades for various causes, including a campaign against Internet censorship.
The European Union, along with the United States, has long pressed Havana to free political prisoners, improve human rights and move towards democracy.
“Farinas was ready to sacrifice and risk his own health and life as a means of pressure to achieve change in Cuba,” European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek told the assembly in announcing the award.
The 27-state EU lifted diplomatic sanctions against communist-run Cuba in 2008 but continues to tie economic cooperation with the island to the plight of political prisoners.
The Cuban government remained silent about the prize, but likely was not pleased by the decision, which could affect relations with the EU.
Farinas, who is still rail-thin, received word of the prize at his modest home in Santa Clara, Cuba, 270km east of Havana, where he told Reuters it was a prize not for him, but “for the Cuban people, for the prisoners … for our brothers who are in the streets, and the exiles.”
“This prize shows that democratic and civilized governments in any part of the world, in this case the Europeans, keep their eyes on the situation of human rights in Cuba,” he said.
“They are sending a message of dissatisfaction with the steps the Cuban government has taken to improve the human rights situation on the island.”
Havana — which considers its political prisoners to be mercenaries working for its long-time ideological foe, the United States — agreed in July to free 52 and send them to Spain, in a deal brokered by the Catholic Church.
‘Proponent of freedom’
An announcement of that agreement prompted Farinas, who was said to be near death, to end a 135-day hunger strike.
In Washington, US State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley praised Farinas as “an outspoken proponent for freedom and democracy in Cuba” and urged Cuban leaders to “follow through on recent public statements and release all political prisoners.
“As Cuba takes steps to improve its human rights record then obviously we will take note of that and we will respond appropriately,” he said.
Cuban human rights groups say that, besides the 52, there remain around 100 people jailed in Cuba for political reasons. Under Cuba’s penal code, dissidents can be arrested, tried and jailed for speaking and writing against the communist government under charges like “enemy propaganda,” “clandestine printing” and “unlawful association”.
Farinas was not in prison at the time of his hunger strike, but has spent time behind bars for different offenses including assaults. He has said the charges were politically motivated.
Spain has pressed for closer EU ties with Havana but other member states have so far opposed a change of policy, and one rights group called on the EU on Thursday to keep up pressure on Cuba.
“This [prize] sends a message to European governments that relations with Cuba cannot be fully normalised until there is significant progress on human rights,” said Reed Brody, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Watch group based in New York.
The EU prize, named after late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, was first awarded in 1988. Last year, it went to Memorial, a Russian group campaigning against abuses of power.
The prize has gone to Cubans twice before — in 2002 to dissident Oswaldo Paya and in 2005 to the opposition group Ladies in White, formed by wives and mothers of Cuban political prisoners.
More hunger strikes?
Paya was permitted by the Cuban government to go and receive the prize, but the Ladies in White were not.
It was not yet known if Cuba will allow Farinas to go to Strasbourg, France, in December for the official award ceremony, but he said he might do another hunger strike if it does not.
Ladies in White leader Laura Pollan praised Farinas, saying he was an “example of self-denial” who was willing to pay the ultimate price for his cause.
“He was capable of making the greatest sacrifice for a just cause, risking everything for the freedom of the prisoners,” she told Reuters in Havana.
So far, 39 of the promised 52 prisoners have been freed. Farinas has threatened a hunger strike about that, too, saying he could begin Nov. 7 if all of them have not been released by then.