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Cuban dissident Roque named US 'Woman of Courage'

AFP |
Mar 02, 2024 02:52 AM IST

Cuban dissident Roque named US 'Woman of Courage'

Martha Beatriz Roque, named one of the US State Department's "Women of Courage" on Friday, has dedicated the honor to fellow Cuban dissidents who, like herself, have been jailed for speaking out against the regime.

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"For me, it is as if all dissidents won," the 78-year-old told AFP at the home of a US diplomat in Havana days before the 12 laureates for 2024 were officially announced.

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But Roque lamented that opposition on the communist island, where there is little tolerance for criticism of the state, has been "very much weakened" since a crackdown on historic mass protests in July 2021.

"The dictatorship's repression of dissidents is great," the former Havana University statistics professor said.

Roque was the only woman among 75 people arrested by the government of then president Fidel Castro in the so-called "Black Spring" crackdown of 2003.

Accused of conspiring against authorities under US support, they were sentenced to prison terms of up to 27 years.

Although given a 20-year term, Roque was freed after a year behind bars for health reasons.

The last of the group were freed in 2011 and most live in exile. But not Roque, who has stayed in Cuba.

In an unprecedented explosion of social discontent, thousands of Cubans spontaneously took to the streets of Havana and dozens of other cities on July 11 and 12, 2021, chanting "Freedom!" and "We are Hungry!"

More than 1,500 were arrested in the aftermath, and hundreds have since been given jail sentences of up to 25 years.

Countless other critics, artists and intellectuals have fled into exile.

Roque says state repression has re-intensified since 2021.

"Before July 11, some (dissident) groups were active, had plans, carried out activities... even in the street," she told AFP. Less so now.

But she said more and more citizens are seeking out dissident representatives, mainly to talk about their daily difficulties at a time when Cuba is experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades.

Known for her outspokenness, the frail but determined Roque lamented that a new generation of government opponents and critics, small in number, seemed intent on fleeing to the United States.

She has herself visited four times since 2016, but has never sought asylum despite continued harassment at home.

"I have never considered leaving the country because my goal is to make Cuba democratic," she told AFP.

Roque will not be able to receive her prize in person, with Cuban authorities refusing her a passport to travel to the awards ceremony in Washington.

"I will always be here to continue fighting for Cuba to become democratic and for the exiles to return to Cuba and make it a prosperous country," she insisted.

In its announcement of the winners, the US State Department described Roque as "one of the longest standing members of the historic opposition fighting for greater freedoms in Cuba."

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