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SANTA CLARA, Cuba (Reuters) - Cuba's latest dissident hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas, walks with a cane and complains that his thin body is weak but he said on Friday he remained firm in his goal: to die, if necessary, to bring change to the island.
The 48-year-old psychologist and freelance writer stopped eating and taking liquids on February 24, a day after Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died from an 85-day hunger strike and became a martyr for the Cuban opposition.
Farinas vowed that Zapata's death, which Cuban President Raul Castro said he regretted, would not be in vain and undertook his own hunger strike to demand freedom for 26 political prisoners said to be in bad health in the Communist-ruled island's jails.
"Plain and simple, we want to say that if Raul regretted the death of Zapata, it's normal that he would release them as a gesture of goodwill so he doesn't have to regret any others," Farinas told Reuters at his modest home in Santa Clara, 168 miles east of Havana.
Zapata's death triggered widespread international condemnation of Cuba's government, with the United States and Europe calling on it to release its estimated 200 political prisoners. Havana blamed the United States, which it said supported dissidents to try to undermine its socialist system.
Analysts said Zapata's hunger strike death likely killed any near-term hopes for improved relations between Havana and the United States and the European Union.
Farinas, who says he has served time in jail for his dissident activities, is on his 23rd hunger strike -- all with a common goal of obtaining change in one form or another in Cuba, he said.
His longest was 18 months. Another lasted eight months, centered on a demand for access to the Internet, which is limited in Cuba. The other hunger strikes ended without much success but there is no turning back from this one, Farinas said.
"I am ready in this hunger strike to go to the ultimate consequences, including my death," he said.
"If in the end they let me die, it will show that political murder in Cuba forms part of the government's essence from 1959 to now," he said. 1959 was the date of Fidel Castro's Revolution, which subsequently installed communism in Cuba.
Farinas' family and friends have pleaded with him to eat and drink again, particularly after he fainted on Wednesday and had to be rushed to a hospital, where doctors gave him 8 liters of liquids intravenously.
He is better now but pulls up his pajama shirt to show how thin he is. The light gleams off his hairless head and a white bandage sits on his right shoulder where he was treated intravenously at the hospital.
The Cuban government is keeping a close eye on Farinas and appears poised to step in as his health worsens. When his family carried him outside on Wednesday looking for a ride to the hospital, they said a car driven by state security agents quickly appeared and whisked him to a nearby cancer center.
Cuba has tried to defuse the criticism over Zapata's death by making the case that he was a common criminal who became a political dissident because of "material advantages" bestowed on the opposition by foreign critics of the island's communist government, including the United States.
Havana also said he received good medical treatment but reached a point where he could not be saved.
Raul Castro blamed the United States for Zapata's death on the grounds that it was the result of a long U.S. campaign to topple communist rule in Cuba.
Cuba views dissidents as U.S.-hired subversives, calling them "mercenaries" and "traitors."
Farinas said he was receiving no aid from abroad during his hunger strike but regularly gives interviews by telephone to international media, including U.S.-funded Radio Marti, whose broadcasts in Spanish to Cuba are jammed by the government.
He said he was hoping his hunger strike rallied international support for his cause. "What we cannot do is leave our brothers to be so treacherously murdered," he said.
He insisted this could end easily if the government wanted. "If they release those political prisoners, I stop my strike," he said.
Editing by Jeff Franks, Pascal Fletcher and Bill Trott