Cuba dissident ends protest fast amid health rumor

AP News
Posted: Nov 17, 2009 6:59 PM

A hunger strike by a Cuban dissident has been a hot story for Miami-based Spanish-language media, and concern about her health even reached the halls of the U.S. Congress, where an anti-Castro lawmaker warned that she was "close to death."

But Martha Beatriz Roque's condition and the extent of her fast were not clear until the 64-year-old appeared at a news conference in Havana on Tuesday.

The activist appeared unsteady but far from death. Her associates clarified that she had only given up solid foods over the past eight days _ and, in any case, was calling off the protest.

Although Roque faced reporters, she refused to speak. A supporter read a statement saying she was returning to a normal diet. Roque, wearing a purple house dress over a light long-sleeve shirt, walked with a cane and at times was steadied by a friend.

She and five other dissidents began a sit-in protest 40 days ago, complaining that state security agents stole a camera from her. The group said they stopped eating solid food last week.

On Monday, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida, said on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives that Roque was "close to death in Havana due to complications arising from a hunger strike."

Spanish-language media in Miami followed Roque's protest closely, with many in the Cuban-American community expressing outrage. Diaz-Balart accused the international press of ignoring the story.

Despite such interest, Roque and the island's other dissidents are largely unknown inside Cuba and enjoy virtually no public following. Cuba's government, which tolerates no organized opposition to its single-party communist system, severely limits freedom of expression and controls all media. It says dissidents are agents of Washington working to undermine the government.

Roque is a state-trained economist who has been an open critic of Cuba's government for more than 20 years. She was arrested and imprisoned as part of a crackdown on dissident in 2003 but granted parole for health reasons after a bit more than a year. She can, however, be returned to prison at any time for violating the conditions of her parole.

Of the 75 activists jailed in what opposition leaders call the "Black Spring," 55 remain imprisoned.

The independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation says more than 200 political prisoners are being held in Cuba.