On Thursday 19th January, Cuban dissident Wilmar Villar died following a fifty day hunger-strike. A relative newcomer to the democratic activist scene, he was serving a four year prison sentence following a rally last November. Tragically, Wilmar’s death came the day before the launch of a campaign by Amnesty International to raise awareness of his detention.
Naturally the Cuban government rushed to tarnish his name, with state-controlled media running the line that he was a “common prisoner” locked up for domestic abuse, who had died in spite of medical professionals’ best efforts to save his life.
Local and international human rights groups disputed this – pointing out that the timing of his detention was intrinsically linked to his political activities and that his wife, the alleged victim in the domestic abuse case, was not even permitted to give evidence at his closed trial. Pointing to constant mistreatment by the police and prison officials they laid the blame for his death firmly with Raul Castro’s regime.
As Wilmar was buried, the authorities stamped out any chance of unrest- detaining several high profile dissidents to prevent them attending the funeral whilst flooding the area with officers.
The situation is a sad step-backwards, following positive developments in recent years, including a mass political prisoner release in 2010 after the death of Orlando Zapta Tamayo, another hunger-striking dissident. Whilst Castro and his henchmen had by no means ceased their persecution of opponents, as illustrated by the constant harassment of Sakharov Prize winner Guillermo Farinas amongst others, there were clear moves in the right direction. With the death of Wilmar Villar and the subsequent crackdown, these now appear at risk of unravelling.
Ominously this represents the continuation of a trend identified by groups such as Reporters Without Borders towards the end of last year, when the regime began rolling back its recent liberalisation of the media,
The focus now will likely turn to other political detainees including Ivonne Malleza Galano, Ignacio Martinez Montejo and Isabel Haydee Alvarez – who Amnesty International have identified as being held without charge following a peaceful anti-government protest in November. Their release is essential to ensuring that Cuba does not slip further back into the repression that it was finally beginning to leave behind.