Last Wednesday- less than a week after imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo was represented by an empty chair at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, almost identical scenes unfolded at the presentation of the EU's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. This time the chair represented Cuban human rights activist Guillermo Farinas who, though now ‘free’ after over eleven years in Fidel and Raul Castro’s dungeons, was denied an exit-visa to leave his own country and receive his award.
It’s little wonder that Cuba’s dictatorship didn’t want to see Dr. Farinas honoured on the world stage; his hunger strike earlier this year –following the death of a fellow activist, provided the impetus for mass international pressure (led by the Catholic Church) that resulted in the release of 52 political prisoners. His previous brave stand against internet censorship had also earned him the prestigious Reporters Without Borders Cyber-Freedom Prize –causing inordinate embarrassment to the regime (particularly as Reporters Without Borders has consistently called for the US Trade Embargo on Cuba to be lifted, undermining any attempts to portray the organisation as an ‘American puppet’ or ‘imperialist apologist’).
However, allowing Dr. Farinas to travel and receive his award would have caused far less damage to the image of Raul Castro and his cronies, than denying him permission to leave ultimately did. Rather than demonstrate themselves to be receptive of criticism, the authorities enforced the perception of Cuba as a giant prison where the population are held against their will and abused should they dissent. No one denies that the Castro dynasty has moved on from the days when homosexuals were sent to concentration camps and political opponents were executed en masse but last week’s events illustrate that there is still a long, long way to go.
We must therefore, continue to rally behind Guillermo Farinas and the many prisoners of conscience still languishing in Cuban jails, so that one day he can proudly travel from his homeland………as a representative of a free Cuba.