The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: Cuban Solidarity Day was on 18 March 2004, but parliament was not sitting so I was unable to deliver a speech on that date. The purpose of Cuban Solidarity Day is to remember those who were imprisoned in Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's crackdown on some 76 so-called dissidents who were involved in peaceful protests at the lack of freedom in the regime. The blatant disregard for any democratic process is as bad in Cuba as it is in Burma. Its leader is as corrupt and totalitarian as Saddam Hussein was, but it does not command the same level of international attention.
Those arrested include journalists, independent labour union organisers, civic leaders, poets, librarians and human rights and democracy activities. Reporters without Borders has labelled Cuba the world's biggest prison for journalists, while Amnesty International has recognised this group of people as what it calls `prisoners of conscience', and has called for the immediate and unconditional release of a total of 84 prisoners. Amnesty's web site states:
The government claims that they were foreign agents whose activities endangered Cuban independence and security, but the dissidents were not charged with recognisably criminal offences.
They have been given prison sentences of between 14 and 28 years—over 1000 years between them. To try 76 people and sentence them for such significant headcounts took just three days. The island of Cuba has been ruled by Castro since 1959. Its suffering is typical of tyrannies based on dictator-ships, those controlled through the military and those which so fear political competition. Its economy is in ruin and dissenting voices are quelled. Control of citizens is so great that Cubans do not have the right to freedom of expression, association or assembly that we take for granted. They may not travel to and from Cuba at will.
The press is controlled by the state. Imprisonment is the potential punishment for free speech. New laws taking effect from 10 January 2004 will limit internet access to official business or government purposes, and services are to be paid in US dollars. Because of the embargo this effectively places severe limits on access for ordinary citizens. Some of its people are so desperate to leave that they have resorted to hijacking aeroplanes and boats; and, even though in at least one of these incidents no-one was injured, three men were executed by firing squad on 11 April 2003—less than one week after their trial began.
A number of the 76 who were arrested on 18 March were associated with the Varela project, a peaceful initiative which collected signatures on a petition calling for free speech, free association and free enterprise. The dissidents have been accused of conspiring with America's chief diplomat to Cuba, Mr James Cason, yet many have never even met him. It is no coincidence that the first anniversary of the crackdown comes at the time of the anniversary of the war in Iraq. While eyes and cameras were focused on that Middle Eastern dictatorship in 2003, they were averted from a politically isolated island off the coast of Florida.
The United States, Canada, the European Union, as well as the Catholic Church and the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, have condemned Cuba's activities, but the democratic governments of many of Cuba's neighbours have remained silent. Amnesty has questioned the continuing need for an embargo and whether it affects innocent and powerless civilians more than the leadership against whom it is intended. While Churchill may have said that democracy is the worst form of government except all others that have been tried, the people of Cuba would like to be able to exercise the right to have democracy.
I join with others around the world to send a message to those unjustly imprisoned that others in the world are aware. We pray for their safety, their wellbeing and for their families who anxiously await their release.