Published Friday, September 3, 1999, in the Miami Herald

Jailed Cuban dissident starts a hunger strike

By JUAN O. TAMAYO
Herald Staff Writer

A jailed Cuban dissident who has been on a liquids-only fast and refused to speak for the past 48 days, on Thursday started a total hunger strike to press her appeal of a conviction on sedition charges.

Marta Beatriz Roque, 54, a member of the well-known ``Group of Four dissidents, has lost more than 20 pounds and is already so weak ``that we believe her life to be in danger, said her sister, Helena.

The Cuban State Security agent who handles her case, Juan Soroa, has told relatives that the Cuban government ``will not let Marta Beatriz die, said Ruth Montaner, a head of a Miami group that supports Cuban dissidents.

``But I can't take that seriously, Montaner said. ``This is a very grave situation. She has been living under absolutely horrible conditions for months, and now this. Marta Beatriz could die at any time.

Relatives in Havana hoped to visit her late Thursday at the Carlos J. Finlay Military Hospital, where she was transferred after beginning her liquid fast. Montaner scheduled a news conference in Miami today with Helena Roque, a Tampa resident.

Roque, an economist, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison on charges of sedition after she and three other dissidents published a 1997 manifesto criticizing the Cuban Communist Party's monopoly on power.

Co-authors Felix Bonne and Rene Gomez Manzano are serving four-year sentences while Vladimiro Roca, son of a late Communist Party leader, received a five-year term.

They were arrested two years ago but were brought to trial only this March 1, in a one-day court session closed to foreign diplomats and journalists. They were sentenced March 6.

Roque filed an appeal March 26, but the courts never replied and she launched a protest, starting her liquids-only fast and refusing to speak, 48 days ago to demand some answer from the government.

She was immediately transferred from the Manto Negro women's prison in the province of Havana to a special wing of the Finlay military hospital reserved for State Security cases, Montaner said. Relatives have been delivering soups and yogurt to her every other day, but could see her only on Thursdays, Montaner said.

Roque has been hospitalized five times since her arrest, suffering from stomach ailments and undergoing checkups for possible cancer, asthma and other breathing and skin problems.

Montaner said the State Security wing of the Finlay hospital had ``horrible health conditions'' and noted that during each of her five stays Roque had been approached by a patient who appeared to be an official of the Interior Ministry, in charge of domestic security.

There have been recent rumors that President Fidel Castro plans to free three members of the ``Group of Four to improve Cuba's image on the eve of an Ibero-American Summit that will bring up to 20 heads of government to Havana in November.

Several foreign leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, have asked for the release of the four, regarded as Cuba's leading dissidents for their thoughtful and peaceful opposition to the Castro government.

They are also the best-known opposition figures inside Cuba, largely as a result of government television's broadcast of the prosecution statement at their trial. Until then, most Cubans were not aware that the late Blas Roca's son had joined the ranks of the opposition.

The manifesto signed by the four dissident, titled ``The Fatherland Belongs to Us All,'' is a scathing critique of the Communist Party's portrayal of itself as the only force capable of guiding Cuba's political and economic development.

The Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, meanwhile, announced Thursday that the number of political prisoners held in Cuba had dropped slightly in the first six months of the year, from about 350 to about 325.

Castro released some 100 political prisoners in the wake of Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba early last year, but the number of jailed dissidents appeared to have risen slightly again during the second half of 1998.

e-mail: jtamayo@herald.com

Copyright 1999 Miami Herald