Terence Blacker: Spare a thought for Castro's lonely victims

He is beaten, kept in solitary confinement and shackled when allowed out of his rat-infested cell
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The Independent Online

At a time when humans everywhere are expressing their faith in the divine, it is perhaps worth remembering that it is not only religion where blind unreason can sometimes hold sway. In various parts of the world today, politicians are revered and regimes regarded with a clear-eyed, child-like sense of trust.

In Britain, for example, many normally sensible people are quite happy to suspend all critical faculties, becoming as moronically innocent in their unquestioning faith as the most simple-minded evangelical or fundamentalist, when the name of Fidel Castro is mentioned. Under normal circumstances, the news that a prisoner of conscience is dying under appalling jail conditions inflicted by his government would have petitions and protests pouring in from all the right places. Unfortunately for Normando Hernández González, he lives in Cuba. There will be good-hearted liberals everywhere who will simply prefer not to know of his case. It complicates their belief system. Castro, after all, has come to represent political virtue, hope, egalitarianism, principle; he is, in the great cliché of the moment, iconic.

So repression of human rights and free expression is something which takes place elsewhere in countries of which one can safely disapprove - China, Iran, Pakistan, Vietnam. The idea that the great bearded one, while heroically standing up to the might of America, has also been ruthlessly crushing individuals who are out of step with his government is safer disregarded. In fact, it is precisely those who are most openly concerned about political morality who, with a sinister, self-imposed blindness worthy of the pen of George Orwell, prefer to ignore the case of Cuba.

Political showmen, anxious to parade their lefty credentials in a way that will cost them nothing - step forward, George Galloway and Ken Livingstone - simply refuse to address the awkward question of how Cuba deals with its dissidents, while even more thoughtful politicians - take a bow, Tony Benn - stubbornly revere the old brute Castro as a political hero in the face of awkward evidence.

Any criticism of El Comandante in these columns will guarantee angry e-mails from his fans. What about Cuba's educational system? readers ask. Remember its health service, its attitude towards the environment. With such achievements, there will a small price to pay - and that price happens to be the freedom of a few writers and intellectuals.

For these people, there is no connection, it seems, between the hell of Normando Hernández González and the world in which they live. It is odd, this, because, had Hernández been born almost anywhere else, he could easily have been one of them. He too believes in the right of humans to express an opinion and to vote. He wrote to that effect from 1995 onwards and, as a result, was rounded up by the authorities with other writers, academics and librarians in the great purge of April 2003, when he was charged with "endangering the state's independence and territorial integrity". The trial of over 70 dissidents took place two days later. It was brief, secret and brutal. Hernández was "socially very dangerous", the court decided. He was jailed for 25 years.

The length of the sentence turned out to be the least of his problems. Like many of the other dissidents, Hernández was singled out for peculiarly cruel and humiliating treatment in prison. He has been beaten up, kept in solitary confinement, shackled when allowed out of his leaking, rat-infested cell. When she visits him, his wife is strip-searched.

Disgusting conditions and appalling food have quickly led to serious health problems, although Hernández is only 37. Having suffered from a series of intestinal disorders and tuberculosis, he has been refused medical treatment. A slight man, he has nonetheless lost 35lbs over the past few weeks. Earlier this month, he collapsed and was at last taken to hospital. According to a statement made by his wife a few days ago, he is dying. He has himself referred to his "premeditated and subtle murder" by the authorities.

It is a strange fact of 21st-century life that, all around the world, writers have become the enemy. With the rise of nationalism and fundamentalism, words and ideas have become dangerous again. For those of us who take for granted the right to disagree - to be "socially dangerous" in the opinions we express - people like Hernández are the true heroes. Which of us, after all, would be prepared to sacrifice everything for the right to express ideas?

Organisations like PEN and Reporters Without Frontiers, whose websites contain details of writers persecuted, imprisoned or murdered for their beliefs, continue to report, alert and protest but, in the context of Cuba, they are working against the tide of fashion. When politicians ignore the brutal treatment of dissidents for reasons of blind, liberal faith, they commit an act of such profound hypocrisy that any other statement of principle they might enunciate can safely be ignored.

George, Ken, Tony and others will doubtless continue to fret over the "mystery illness" of Fidel Castro and worry what will happen to the regime of which they are so fond after he has died. But those whose belief in human rights is genuine and not based on image or political expediency should spare a thought this Christmas for the brave, often unrecognised struggle of people like Normando Hernández González.