Cuban hunger strikes deserve our attention

September 24, 2012

While dozens of activists flocked to Washington Square Park for last weekend’s Folk Festival, a couple dozen Cuban dissidents conducted hunger strikes throughout Cuba. The protesters in the park consisted mainly of fringe groups opposed to capitalism — socialists and remnants of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Cuban dissidents sought the release of Jorge Vázquez Chaviano, a man who remained incarcerated even after fully serving his prison sentence. The Cuban government failed to provide a reason for prolonging his captivity — imposing a judgment without trial, as per usual.

The OWS activists sang tunes about protest while the anti-capitalists held up banners denouncing greed and debt. They presented an array of serious issues coupled with dubious solutions. The socialists in particular advocated an alternative form of government able to circumvent most of the ills faced by the United States. Their methods were far tamer than a hunger strike, and yet they garnered far more media attention.

Those demonstrating in favor of socialism packed their belongings at nightfall and simply returned to enjoying the full benefits of the capitalist society in which we live. For those demonstrating against the self-declared socialist government in Cuba, nightfall only meant the inevitable continuation of hunger and exhaustion. In recent years, these hunger strikes have ended in death simply because of the Cuban government’s adversity to negotiation.

Surprisingly, such a blatant abuse of human rights did not receive widespread media attention in the United States. Within our campus, even among those immersed in activism and politics, few could speak of the Cuban dissident movement with authority. This creates a paradoxical situation in which a society deeply concerned with freedom and human rights ignores the plight of a country located only ninety miles away from our coast.

Two major factors account for the lack of mainstream debates on Cuba: national security and public opinion. Cuba does not pose a liability to U.S. security nor does it possess significant economic assets. As a result, Cuba’s opposition movements have seldom garnered the media attention given to many countries of the Arab Spring. Yet Cuba’s democratic spring has dragged on for the past 20 years. Dissident movements against the authoritarian government have been met with imprisonment, torture and even execution.

Many believe Cuba boasts exemplary education and health care systems — even though the country is poor. These myths form part of the official government propaganda, which advertises Cuba as a country oppressed by U.S. influence. For example, the socialists at Washington Square Park advertised their message through the iconic image of Che Guevara. A prima facie, his image evokes an exalted notion of revolution, hope and the struggle for the working classes. The less glamorous truth regarding Guevara involves the routine execution of prisoners without trials and his role in creating Cuba’s current government. This duality helps us understand a country that some decry for its human rights records while others laud for its apparent progress.

Back in Cuba, dissidents halted their hunger strike after the government announced  Chaviano’s ensuing release. The courage of thirty citizens prevailed against a 50-year-old dictatorship. This episode highlights a continuous struggle for freedom within Cuba that will gain momentum as more people learn the truth. Unfortunately, this attention has yet to gain a foothold in the United States.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 24 print edition. Carlos Estevez is a contributing writer. Email him at opinion@nyunews.com.

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