HAVANA — President Barack Obama has denounced the Cuban government 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 on Feb. 23 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 first anniversary of the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo following an 83-day hunger strike.
A leading Cuban human rights leader told The Associated Press that at least 46 opposition activists had been detained across the island Feb. 23, 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,” Obama said.
There was no immediate reaction from Cuba to Obama’s statement. But two days later, on Feb. 25, the communist government denounced Obama as a copy of his conservative Republican predecessor and said he gave more credence to Cuban-American exiles than his own diplomats.
An opinion piece in the official Communist Party newspaper Granma criticized Obama for supporting dissidents on the island and calling on Cuba to release all political prisoners. It said the president’s statement shows he is being manipulated by exiles, uninformed advisors and a biased U.S. media.
Cuba has said its doctors did all they could to keep Tamayo alive. It maintains he and all other dissidents are common criminals and says his jail term was extended because of poor behavior behind bars.
The Granma piece refers to a secret diplomatic cable sent out in 2009 over the signature of Jonathan Farrar, America’s chief diplomat in Havana, which describes Cuban opposition groups as petty, fractured and out of touch. The cable was revealed by WikiLeaks late last year.
The Granma article said Obama’s statement made clear he had ignored his chief diplomat’s council.
“The White House is giving more attention to pressure from Miami and its mafia in the capital than it is to its own diplomats,” the article said, adding that Obama’s emotional statement “emulated his predecessor George W. Bush in its abuse of adjectives.”
The article was published next to a series of altered photos showing the face of former President George W. Bush gradually turning into that of Obama.
The newspaper also had harsh words for Cuban bloggers and the U.S. media, particularly The New York Times, the latest in a series of official articles criticizing the American press.
“In an era where newspapers are filled with more lies than advertisements … it is hard to tell who got the president so worked up, the New York Times or an adviser on the National Security Council,” the article said.
Granma also carried an article denouncing The Wall Street Journal for an editorial that drew parallels between Cuba and Egypt, where a popular uprising forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down. Cuba has been led by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro since 1959.
The article said the newspaper’s “image of sobriety and power cannot hide fanaticism and hate.”
The articles came days after Cuban media lashed out at CNN’s Spanish-language network for reporting that an opposition demonstration was going to take place in Havana. The protest never occurred.
Cuban state cable providers last month removed CNN’s Spanish network from a package of channels provided mostly to hotels, foreign companies and diplomats on the island, though no reason was given.
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 two weeks ago 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.
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 such as hijacking and sabotage.
Obama credited Zapata and the Damas with 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,” Obama said.