Cuba: government denies prisoner died from hunger strike

The Cuban government announced on Jan. 20 that a prisoner, Wilmar Villar Mendoza, had died the day before in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Santiago de Cuba. The government said Villar had been hospitalized six days before with pneumonia and had died of “generalized infection.” According to Villar’s wife, Maritza Pelegrino, the prisoner had been on hunger strike from Nov. 25 to Dec. 23 to protest his four-year prison sentence and had resumed the strike on Dec. 29. Elizardo Sánchez, a well-known Cuban dissident, said Villar had been active in with an opposition group since last summer.

US president Barack Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, released a statement on Jan. 20 calling Villar “a young and courageous defender of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba who launched a hunger strike to protest his incarceration and succumbed to pneumonia.” The Cuban government denied that Villar had been on hunger strike or that he was a political prisoner; the Cubans said the US, Spain and Chile were “manipulating” the death and called them “interventionists…without moral authority.” (White House statement, Jan. 20; La Jornada, Mexico, Jan. 21, from correspondent; El Universal, Mexico, Jan. 22)

On Jan. 12 the noted Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano visited Cuba for the first time since 2003, when he, along with Portuguese author JosĂ© Saramago and other leftist intellectuals, criticized the Cuban government’s execution of three boat hijackers and the imprisonment of 75 dissidents. The occasion for Galeano’s visit was the Jan. 16 ceremony for the literature prize awarded annually by Casa de las AmĂ©ricas, a major Cuban cultural organization. “The true friend is the one who criticizes you to your face and praises you behind your back,” Galeano said during his visit, adding that he was quoting the late Carlos Fonseca Amador, a founder of Nicaragua’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).

According to Galeano, his most famous work, Open Veins of Latin America, failed to win the Casa de las AmĂ©ricas prize in 1971 because the jury didn’t consider the book “serious enough.” “It was a period in which the left still confused being serious with being boring,” he said. “Fortunately, this was changing, and in our days it is known that the best ally of the left is laughter.” (LJ, Jan. 17, from correspondent)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Jan. 22.

See our last post on Cuba.