After a 134-day hunger strike, Guillermo Farinas' waist is so small that a dog collar could fit around it. This living skeleton (who has survived this long only because he has taken nutrients intravenously) now has a victory: The Cuban government has announced the planned release of 52 political prisoners. That Raul Castro appears to have buckled to international pressure is, of course, good news -- though it comes too late for Orlando Zapata.
Zapata was a plumber and bricklayer who committed what the Castro brothers consider a treasonous act -- he joined a political group that believes in freedom, the Alternative Republic Movement. After his 2002 arrest and conviction for "disrespect, public disorder, and resistance," he was repeatedly abused and beaten in prison.
Displaying a flair for irony, he demanded treatment comparable to that which Fidel Castro endured when imprisoned by Fulgencio Batista in 1953. Instead, he was further mistreated and his prison sentence was lengthened from three to 36 years.
Zapata's only weapon was his own suffering, but his demand was not for himself. He fasted for the release of 22 other ill political prisoners. Upon his death in February, at age 42, there was a quick splash of negative headlines, and he was forgotten. A few weeks later, President Obama lifted the travel ban for those with relatives on the island and lifted other restrictions on contacts between Cuba and the United States.
Farinas, a psychologist, Cuban army veteran, and political "subversive," took up the gauntlet with his own hunger strike that now seems to have succeeded. "Seems" is the operative word since the Castro regime has often promised reforms without follow through. Even by its explicit terms, the government's agreement is to release only five prisoners immediately and the rest over the course of the next three or four months. All will leave the country.
Why the wait? Presumably, it's because the regime needs time to make its prisoners presentable. Bruises must heal. Weight must be gained. That sort of thing.
Here is a description of Cuban prison conditions from "The Black Book of Communism":
"Violence began with the interrogation ... Prisoners were forced to climb a staircase wearing shoes filled with lead and were then thrown back down the stairs. ... Working conditions were extremely harsh, and prisoners worked almost naked ... As a punishment, 'troublemakers' were forced to cut grass with their teeth or to sit in latrine trenches for hours at a time."