The pro-democracy dissident organization Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) announced Wednesday that over 120 people across the island had joined their collective hunger strike protesting the abuses of the Castro regime against opponents of a “new” Communist Party constitution set to pass this weekend.
The Castro regime has called for a national referendum, scheduled for February 24, on whether to adopt a new constitution written by the Party and cementing in power the nation’s elite, including dictator Raúl Castro and his subordinate, President Miguel Diáz-Canel. Díaz-Canel stated plainly that the constitution will pass on Twitter this month, confirming that the regime has no intention of holding a free and fair election on the matter.
Cuban dissidents have widely rejected the referendum and are split between two camps: those urging Cubans to vote “no” on the new constitution and those campaign for a nationwide boycott, similar to the May 2018 boycott of Venezuela’s fraudulent presidential election, which led to the replacement of dictator Nicolás Maduro with legitimate interim President Juan Guaidó.
UNPACU, one of the nation’s largest dissident organizations, is urging Cubans to vote “no.” For this, the Communist Party has repeatedly raided the group’s multiple headquarters around the country, placed round-the-clock surveillance outside the homes of UNPACU leaders, and violently assaulted members of the group, including some minors, elderly, and pregnant women.
In response, the head of UNPACU, José Daniel Ferrer, began a hunger strike to demand freedom for both himself and his organization to express their political opinions in public without suffering police brutality. Several UNPACU members joined him last week and that number has since continued to grow, reaching 122 people this week.
Ferrer updated the previous known number of hunger strikers, 117, in a post on the organization’s website Thursday where he denounced yet another violent attack on a group of UNPACU dissidents.
“In the early morning hours of today, political police and assault forces entered home-headquarters number 20 of UNPACU with extreme violence,” the UNPACU statement read. “Promoting the #IVoteNo campaign against the constitution has led to UNPACU suffering over one hundred detentions in the last several days, 70 detained in police stations and many more dozens rapidly detained to impede their movements.”
“122 UNPACU activists are currently on hunger strike in protest of these assaults. Five were arrested today [Thursday] in the last raid, along with three other activists who were with them and in the presence of 13-year-old and 15-year-old girls,” the statement continued.
At last one hunger striker, identified as Eliecer Góngora Izaguirre, is missing. Police broke his arm shortly before his disappearance; he was last seen in a photo with a cast reading “I vote no.”
As the number of activists on hunger strike has increased, UNPACU has posted videos on Youtube of the activists explaining their reasons for joining the protest. Among those mentioned are “economic freedom,” “respect for human rights,” and “the right to political freedoms and thinking differently.”
As UNPACU has a strong presence on both ends of the island, police raids have taken place in both western Havana and eastern Santiago de Cuba. According to 14 y medio, a Cuban independent newspaper, police have installed 24-hour surveillance at the home used as the group’s headquarters in Santiago. Neighbors are reportedly “very dismayed” because police reportedly stop anyone they consider a suspected UNPACU member, which is almost anyone living in the neighborhood not working as an officer in the Communist Party.
This week, in anticipation of the referendum, UNPACU’s members sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to denounce the vote as illegitimate.
“We have seen during the last week heavily armed forces of the Ministry of Interior violently raid fourteen homes of its members, knocking down doors and barging in while families are sleeping,” the group wrote. “Children, elderly and pregnant women have been dragged out of bed, minors stripped naked and searched and countless items stolen including medicine, food and personal effects. Actions that without a doubt qualify as state terrorism.”
Hunger strikes have a long history in post-Revolutionary Cuba. The most immediate historical event UNPACU is honoring with their protest is the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo on February 23, 2010. Tamayo was arrested for public dissent from the Communist Party in 2003 and chose to engage in a hunger strike as a sign of protest after seven years of torture behind bars. Many believe he died prematurely as guards refused to give him water during the strike, which strikers typically consume despite rejecting food or any liquids with sugar or added nutrients.