At least five Cuban political prisoners are refusing food in a spontaneous trend triggered by the February death of a dissident.


Egberto Angel Escobedo completed his 17th year in a Cuban prison last Friday, and his 56th day of a hunger strike.

He's at a penitentiary called ``Red Ceramic'' [Cerámica Roja, a former ceramics factory] in Camagüey, where the military keeps him in isolation to prevent other inmates from spreading word of his failing health.

Escobedo is one of at least five cases of political prisoners -- down from seven -- who are refusing food, in what experts say is an extraordinary surge of inmates at different Cuban lockups fighting over different causes. Protesting everything from medical care to prison uniforms, they are using an age-old technique that over the years has met with mixed results.

``I don't recall at least in the last decade seeing so many people in jail on a hunger strike,'' said former political prisoner Ricardo Bofill, who served two stints totaling 15 years. ``There is a political context that contributes to all this. They perceive that this is the moment to pressure the government, that there is momentum.''

Some protesters, like prisoner Diosdado González, quickly have their demands met. His wife's sympathy hunger strike lasted just a day. A dozen other prisoners over the decades, such as Orlando Zapata Tamayo four months ago, died.

Experts say the current strikes, likely fueled by Zapata's death, were uncoordinated, spontaneous and far from unprecedented.

From the fight for independence against the Spanish to the battle against the dictators who came before the Castros, Cuban activists have refused food in a quest to have a spotlight shone on their causes.

In the late 1960s, entire prisons would go on collective hunger strikes to protest conditions. Before 1959, intense media coverage turned hunger strikers into overnight national cause célèbres, said former prisoner José Albertini, who wrote the 2007 Spanish-language book, Cuba and Castroism: Hunger Strikes in Political Prisons.

Albertini's great-grandmother died in the late 1800s while imprisoned for struggling for Cuba's independence. She refused to eat or to feed two of her children, and all three died.

``The hunger striker is political and largely does this for press attention to their cause,'' Albertini said. ``In the 1960s and '70s, they did it out of dignity, because they knew nobody would listen.''

And while journalists are shut out of Cuba's prisons, the proliferation of cellphones and the Internet have helped spread information about hunger strikes that in the past the Cuban government could have kept secret.

``The international community around the world should be up to date on the political prisoners and Cuban citizens who oppose'' the Castro regime, Escobedo said in a message distributed by the Democratic Directorate human rights organization. ``I will continue carrying out Orlando Zapata Tamayo's call to resistance, which cannot be extinguished.''

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for the freedom of all cuban political prisoners
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