Authoritarianism and Dissent: 21st Century Horizons with José Gabriel Ramón Castillo

José Gabriel Ramón Castillo, Cuban human rights activist, who was expelled from the University of the Orient in 1993 after founding the first human rights organization in the Eastern region of the island, and was arrested and tortured in the 1990s, addresses the 2nd Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


José Gabriel Ramón Castillo: Thank you and good afternoon.

A few days ago, Cuba was in the press because of something that happened to a political prisoner. His name is Orlando Zapata Tamayo. All the world’s major newspapers covered the story. Orlando Zapata had died after 83 days on hunger strike. This has moved the entire world and all of us. He was fighting for our cause and he was one of us when we were put in prison in 2003. Just a few days prior to his unfortunate death, I was saying to some friends that this would happen. It wasn’t something I was hoping for of course but I could see events unfolding and I could see that the Castro regime was not coming to a decision in his case. He was simply asking for his rights as a prisoner to be respected. He wasn’t asking for anything else, he just wanted to be properly treated as a prisoner, and the government was denying him his rights as a prisoner. 

Now this story has been heard all over the world and Orlando Zapata is just one of the dozens of Cuban political prisoners who are suffering under a despotic regime that flagrantly violates human rights. The Cuban government has now held power for 51 years and it does not allow for any dissent whatsoever. Any opposition in Cuba whether peaceful or otherwise is put in prison. Many Cubans over the last 51 years have ended up in prison, simply for opposing the regime in a peaceful manner. I can give you a figure; over 50% of people born in Cuba since 1959 have been to prison at some point in Cuba and I think this really draws our attention to the kind of system that is in existence in Cuba. 

What we are not trying to do here is give you just information on what’s going on in the country. I’m sure this goes on in other countries, for example in Korea, Burma, Venezuela and so on. We have been invited here and we would like to thank UN Watch for inviting us here and also thank all the organizations that have organized this Conference and we are here really because it enables us to maintain contact with all of you who are here today. It enables you to know about our reality and enables you to help us as far as possible through your votes, your demonstrations, your support, to prevent these things happening in our countries. 

Now in Cuba there are various people who are on hunger strike. Orlando Zapata died last week, but there has been a domino effect following his example. Other prisoners have now started hunger strikes including a dissident whose picture I will try and show you here. He’s an independent journalist and his name is Guillermo Fariñas Hernandez. He has declared that he is now on hunger strike and he is aiming to achieve the freeing of other political prisoners in Cuba who suffer from chronic illnesses. Our friend here is on hunger strike also so that everyone in Cuba can have access to the internet. He is someone who has sacrificed himself over many years. He has been asking the Cuban government for changes in the regime so that we can have a different society in Cuba and he has carried out his activities by sacrificing himself. It’s very possible that this colleague will also pass away if the regime continues to maintain its position. It knows full well that it’s not being asked for the world; its in its hands to comply with the request. There are over 20 people from our cause that suffer from chronic illnesses. There is one, Ariel Sigler Amaya, who we brought here prior to him catching an illness that he did catch in prison and he also has gone on hunger strike now.

So I wanted to draw your attention to all these matters because each political prisoner in Cuba has a story behind them. We all went to prison for opposing the regime and so on. Now I’m a teacher, I’m a journalist myself, I wrote a magazine called the “Fueros magazine” and this was promoting culture in an independent manner. We weren’t broadcasting the views of any political party organization; I was simply a dissident. I was sent to prison and I was sentenced to 20 years. I got ill in prison and it was thanks to the Spanish government that I came out of prison alive. I was deported to Spain, I came out of prison and was sent straight to Spain and it’s thanks to that that I am alive and that I can be here today to speak to you.

That’s my story. That’s my simple personal story. I can tell it to you in the simple manner I have, but what I would say to you is that it interests me much more to talk about the people who are on hunger strike in Cuba. There are almost 300 political prisoners currently held in Cuba. I would like to tell you about the situation of a country where there is no freedom. People have no future there and these are things of great concern. There are messages emerging from Cuba: we hear that Cuba is a first world country, it has a wonderful education system, a wonderful health system, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Cuba is a country in which the regime has condemned its people to live in abject misery. There are many people who are very well informed and have been to Cuba and have seen with their own eyes what is going on in my country. They know full well what is going on, they know who’s responsible for what is going on, and who is complicit in the dictatorship’s activities. 

In Cuba, there is a dissident movement. It has been growing exponentially. In 2003 the movement suffered a serious setback, many people went to prison in the Black Spring of 2003. But today, there are two or three times as many dissidents as there were in 2003 and these dissidents are struggling and demanding and acting in a peaceful manner to bring about change within Cuba. They are expecting our support. I would like the world to become more aware of the situation and I would like the people who know what’s going on to support those people who feel so alone within Cuba. They believe they are not supported by the world and I would really, really like us to show that there is a certain solidarity with these dissidents. Just recently in Madrid there was discussion on a statement by the popular party and I was saying that the most damaging thing for Cuba is for the outside world not to come up with a common position on the Castro government. Unfortunately, the statement didn’t emerge in Spain. But coming up with a statement would give the government the opportunity to say something specific. What we hear, unfortunately, is that foreign governments say that they support the Cuban regime and that’s terrible for the people to hear. We need to ensure that the correct interpretation of events sees the light. 

Now I don’t know how long I have to speak. I have two minutes left apparently. In my remaining two minutes, I think I could say a couple more things. 

I would invite you to look at this newspaper, it came out last Thursday. It’s called “Ciudadanos Cuba,” Cuban Citizens, it’s online. Here we publish all information related to Cuba. It has been translated into various languages; English, French, Polish for example. And here you can find all kinds of information on Cuba. It’s very current up to date information and you can really see how many people are in prison. There’s even a list of current prisoners. 

I wanted to conclude by showing you something else and I think this is the most interesting thing that I can say. Now you can see a face on the screen; this is Dr. Darsi Ferrer Ramírez. He is a doctor, he is a dissident, he has been a prisoner since the 23rd of July last year and his apparent crime is one of “violence against the state.” But what he does is survey matters within Cuba. Basically he runs opinion polls and it’s because of this that they sent him to prison; simply for running opinion polls in Cuba. So here you can see his face, you can see that he has been beaten, he was attacked by over 10 policemen and really was very near death’s door. He is in the Valle Grande prison at the moment, a prison outside Havana and he is still waiting to go to trial. And like him, in the same situation is another gentleman who was also attacked; José Díaz Silva. He is someone else who you can see here. You can see his injuries, you can see the injury on his body, which resulted from an attack, an unexplained attack. He was someone who simply ran a study on what was going on in Cuba and because of that he was arrested. This is day-to-day life in Cuba. The regime, the government simply won’t tolerate dissidents. The message is that dissidents are mercenaries and this is the way that the government tries to find support from other governments. Now of course no one within Cuba accepts this message because all Cubans know that there is an independent opposition within Cuba that is opposed to the current situation in the country. 

I hope that these explanations will show you that my story is reflected here as well. I came out of a prison ill, I spent over five years in prison during which time I was subjected to cruel and degrading treatment. I spent a great deal of time in a punishment cell incommunicado and I think this really shows you the kinds of things that go on in Cuba. I continue to work for human rights and we continue to work on various projects, such as the “Ciudadano Cuba” project that I mentioned earlier. This is how we work both within and outside Cuba in favor of democracy and respecting human rights. 

Thank you very much.

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