Warning on relations with Cuban regime


Imprisoned by Havana for 20 months, a political dissident speaks to MARY FITZGERALD,Foreign Affairs Correspondent

A LEADING Cuban dissident has criticised Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin for not meeting opposition figures during an official visit to the island in February, saying that such visits serve only to legitimise the island’s regime.

Speaking during a visit to Dublin, Osvaldo Alfonso Valdés said the EU should be wary of reaching out to Havana if it does not improve its record on human rights. He also urged Brussels not to ignore Cuban opposition groups as it moves towards further engagement with the island.

Last year, the EU decided to formally restore relations with Cuba, five years after it imposed diplomatic sanctions following a crackdown on dissidents, including Mr Valdés.

Mr Valdés, an opposition party member, was one of the 75 dissidents imprisoned in 2003. He spent 20 months in jail before being released along with 15 others in a move widely considered an attempt by Havana to curry favour with the EU.

Three, including Mr Valdés, were allowed leave the island.

He now lives in exile in Sweden.

Mr Valdés discussed the Minister’s visit during a meeting with Department of Foreign Affairs officials in Dublin this week. “It is unfortunate that the Cuban regime can use such visits as a legitimisation of its power, when the situation in Cuba is still the same with respect to human rights violations,” he said. “We were not given any concrete reason why the Minister did not meet with opposition representatives.”

Mr Valdés said he was told that an official from the Irish Embassy in Mexico made a follow-up visit to Cuba during which they met with opposition figures.

“This [ministerial visit] is not an isolated action, it is part of a wider movement within the EU which is trying to normalise the relationship with the Cuban regime without asking for real improvements in the human rights situation in Cuba,” he added. Mr Valdés also met representatives from human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Frontline during his visit to Ireland.

According to Amnesty’s 2008 global report, at least 62 prisoners of conscience remain imprisoned in Cuba. Political dissidents, independent journalists and human rights activists continued to be harassed and detained, and Amnesty describes restrictions on freedom of expression, association and movement as “severe”.

Mr Valdés said the opposition movement in Cuba had become stronger in recent years.

“There is more expression of disagreement and unhappiness, particularly from the younger generation, and artists and writers,” he said.

“The key for the democratisation of Cuba will not be the policies of the EU or the US but this movement. It is something the Cuban government cannot stop, because they cannot imprison thousands of people at the same time.”

Mr Valdés said a “romantic idea or image” of Cuba had blinded many to its record on human rights, and he spoke dismissively of what he called “revolutionary tourism” on the island.

“There is a big difference between going to Cuba to do revolutionary tourism and suffering for 50 years the reality of that revolution and life in Cuba.”