Havana: US President Barack Obama denounced the Cuban government on Wednesday for harassing the mother of a political prisoner who died after a long hunger strike, and said her treatment and the detention of other dissidents stood as evidence of the island's poor human rights record.
The statement came as a pro-government crowd in Havana threw eggs and shouted insults outside a home where the Cuban opposition group the Damas de Blanco — or Ladies in White — were marking the one-year anniversary of the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who passed away following an 83-day hunger strike.
A leading Cuban human rights leader said that at least 46 opposition activists had been detained across the island on Wednesday, including another well-known hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas. Many of those detained were quickly released, but Farinas remained in custody late Wednesday afternoon.
Obama said Zapata's "selfless and tragic death" had "galvanized the world's attention to the ongoing mistreatment of those unjustly held by Cuban authorities”.
"The Cuban people must know that their suffering does not go unnoticed and that the United States remains unwavering in our commitment to defend the inalienable right of the Cuban people to enjoy the freedoms that define the Americas and that are universal to all human beings," he said.
There was no immediate reaction from Cuba to the US leader's statement, but it was sure to be met with anger and indignation. Relations between Washington and Havana have been frigid for decades, most recently over Cuba's decision to seek a 20-year jail term for a detained American subcontractor that officials here accuse of spying.
Obama's criticism followed similar sentiments by Amnesty International denouncing Cuba for its treatment of Zapata's mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, who was detained for about 12 hours last week in her hometown of Banes, in eastern Cuba.
Reached by telephone in Banes, Reina Luisa Tamayo said she spent the day laying flowers and a Cuban flag on her son's grave and then went to get passport photos made for a visa to the United States, which has granted her political refuge.
She said she plans to have her son cremated and bring the ashes when she departs Cuba for good — expected to be in the coming months, although Tamayo recently said she was still awaiting Cuban paperwork.
Cuba considers the dissidents to be mercenaries paid by Washington to destabilise the country, and says its doctors did everything they could to keep Zapata alive during his fast.
Since Zapata's death, the government has cleared its jails of many political prisoners. It has freed 46 activists, intellectuals and social commentators arrested in a 2003 crackdown, and now holds just six men arrested in that sweep who are considered "prisoners of conscience" by Amnesty.
It has also freed about 25 other prisoners arrested separately for violent — but politically motivated — crimes like hijacking and sabotage.
Obama credited Zapata and the Damas for forcing the government of President Raul Castro to let the prisoners go, and he called on Cuba to continue the releases.
"Today, I join the Cuban people in marking this anniversary by again calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Cuba," he said.
First Published: Thursday, February 24, 2011, 11:47