PRAGUE -- Five years ago, the European Union was on the verge of fulfilling one of the aspirations of the Velvet Revolutions that swept across Central and Eastern Europe by expanding from 15 to 25 members through the accession of several post-communist states. Yet, while the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain may have fallen into the dustbin of history, others vestiges of the Soviet era remain firmly in place. Certain areas of the world have been transformed for the better, even as others have been suspended in time to fend for themselves. One place that has not changed is Cuba, despite Fidel Castro’s decision to retire and hand the reigns of power over to his brother Raul.
On March 18th five years ago, Castro’s government cracked down on the Varela Project and other civil society initiatives rather than risk allowing a spark of democratic reform to spread across Cuba as it had in the former Soviet bloc. The seventy five prisoners of conscience locked up were dissidents, independent journalists, leaders from civil society, and librarians, who had dared to speak the truth openly about what life is like in Cuba. Even though four prisoners have recently been released, fifty five of the seventy five remain incarcerated in deplorable conditions. In general, the only reason that any of these prisoners were freed was because of how seriously their health had deteriorated.
Given how central the values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law are in Europe, we feel it is our obligation to speak out against such injustices continuing unchecked. Less than twenty years ago there were political prisoners on the EU’s borders who were denied the basic rights of freedom of speech and expression, lived in constant fear of being denounced and dreamed about enjoying what Europeans in the ‘West’ took for granted.
Cuba’s regime has remained in power, the same ways that communist governments did in the former Yugoslavia, Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – the last three as part of the Soviet Union - by using propaganda, censorship and violence to create a climate of fear. Likewise, the solidarity that was expressed by those outside of these countries helped bring about the changes.