Martha Beatriz Roque: “In Cuba there are political prisoners, but they don’t all appear on the lists”

Martha Beatriz Roque. (14ymedio)
Martha Beatriz Roque. (14ymedio)

The opposition leader Martha Beatriz Roque witnessed the controversial incident that occurred last Thursday, 2 July, at the residence of the head of the United States Interests Section in Havana, during the celebrations of that country’s Independence Day. A group of government opponents rebuked Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino for his statement that there are no political prisoners in Cuba, which has been spread in spoken and filmed versions. Roque talks about these events in an interview with  14ymedio.

14ymedio. The Archbishop of Havana has just denied one version in which derogatory expressions about the independent press were attributed to Cardinal Jaime Ortega. You were there, how do you feel about what happened?

Roque. I think that it wasn’t the proper way to address a person who occupies the position in the Church that Cardenal Jaime Ortega occupies, nor was it the appropriate place to do it in the circumstances in which the incident occurred. There have been references to some videos and voice recordings, in one of which Jaime can be heard to say that the opponents “are blowing the trumpets of Miami.”

Although I was present at the home of the Chief of the Interests Section for the celebration of the United States’ independence day, I wasn’t a direct witness to the incident, but I talked with everyone moments later. Things got rough as they were speaking, to the point that Father Polcari had to intervene and ask them to keep their distance.

Those involved in the incident were Egberto Escobedo, who was the person who spoke; Jose Diaz Silva; Maria Cristina Labrada Varona, who is the wife of Escobedo; and the Lady in White from Matanzas, Leticia Herrería. Everything happened in the middle of the patio of the chief of the United States Interest Section’s residence in the atmosphere of the 4 th of July celebration.

Escobedo told me personally that they had told the cardinal that the people of Cuba didn’t agree with him with regards to his behavior of denying the existence of political prisoners. Which I see as part of this injection of totalitarianism that the majority of us opponents have, of speaking like the system itself which systematically speaks in the name of the people, and there we go also speaking in the name of the people.

We never forget the execution of those three Cubans in 2003. That was an atrocity, but no one who commits this type of crime can be on a list of political prisoners, because they are not.

14ymedio. The focus of the discussion is related to some statements by Archbishop Jaime Ortega where he denies the existence of political prisoners in Cuba. Do you share that opinion?

Roque. On two occasions the Cardinal has said that in Cuba there are no political prisoners. On a third occasion he said that on the lists that have been submitted to him there are no political prisoners. We did the work of analyzing the different lists prepared and we prepared a document with respect to that which will soon be published.

It does not seem necessary to specify the authors of such lists, because I do not want anyone to feel attacked with this. The truth is that on some of the lists there are a lot of people who are not only not political prisoners, but in some cases are not even prisoners right now.

14ymedio. You mean those who have carried out violent acts?

Roque. Personally I do not agree that those who have come to Cuba to perform violent acts, terrorist acts or murders, being considered political prisoners. I think you have to have mercy on them, especially those who are Catholics, because in many cases the regime has imposed excessive penalties and this is not permissible from the human point of view. I’m talking about those who have committed serious crimes, but not enough to warrant the conviction of spending the rest of their lives in prison.

We all know how Mr. Fidel Castro made decisions in this regard. We never forget the execution of these three Cubans who  stole the boat Baraguá to leave Cuba in 2003. That was an atrocity, but no one who commits this type of crime can be on a list of political prisoners, because they are not.

14ymedio. But do you agree with the cardinal that in Cuba there are no political prisoners?

Roque. In Cuba there are political prisoners, but they do not all appear on those lists. These lists need to be cleaned up. For that we should talk with the heads of organizations and they can say who is who and if they still detained or not, because it also happens that if they are not updated, people are released from prison but remain on the lists. We must agree on the lists and seek the advice of lawyers in the field to explain some cases.

I maintain that it was disrespectful to rebuke Jaime Ortega and also a lack of courtesy to the hosts

14ymedio. To which cases are you referring?

Roque. For example, it is common that in Cuba a person is beaten by police and then charged with assault. I know a whole family where the political police broke down the door of the house, beat them, and they went to prison for up to nine years, serving time for the crime of assault. I’m talking about Osvaldo Rodriguez Acosta and his son Osvaldo Rodriguez Castillo, along with Juana Castillo, wife of Osvaldo, who was sentenced to five years of “correctional deprivation without internment.” However, in one of the dictates it appears as “attempted police murder” and to read that is very hard.

14ymedio. Someone who is limited to reading official documents in a case like this, which you pose as an example, could say that these people are not imprisoned for political reasons.

Roque. Exactly. It is saying what it is not and I think they are political prisoners, as I think others who do appear on some lists are not.

14ymedio. So perhaps the Cardinal could have “fallen into the temptation” of making a candid reading of official documents.

Roque. I do not know how he might have read it, but I maintain that it was disrespectful to rebuke him and also a lack of courtesy to the hosts. All I could do was to greet him and try to erase the impression, which may have been that all of us opponents have similar behaviors.

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