HAVANA (Reuters) - Diplomats from European Union countries angered Cuba on Thursday when they went to the home of a jailed dissident to express their concern about the case and what they view as government efforts to quell dissent.
Their visit signaled that despite improved relations with Cuba, the EU still has reservations about the communist government’s treatment of opponents.
Cuba’s government reacted swiftly, summoning ambassadors or charges d’affaires from the five countries whose diplomats made the visit — Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Germany and Britain — to say they had threatened recently renewed EU-Cuba dialogue.
“The message was of criticism about the visit, meddling in Cuban internal affairs and putting at risk the political dialogue. It was a pretty strong move,” said a European diplomat.
The five diplomats had met with Yusnaimy Jorge Soca, the wife of Cuban physician Darsi Ferrer who has been imprisoned since July 21 on charges he bought two bags of cement on the black market and verbally assaulted a neighbor.
No trial date has been set for Ferrer, 39, who has organized walks along Havana’s seaside boulevard, the Malecon, and in front of local UNESCO offices to support human rights.
Angry mobs attacked his small group at the UNESCO walks in 2006 and 2007.
His wife, pointing to concrete ceiling beams with gaping holes in the living room of their cramped home, told reporters a friend had given them cement to make repairs.
“My husband is not in prison for two bags of cement,” she said. “He’s in prison for dreaming.”
Swedish diplomat Ingemar Cederberg, speaking on behalf of the EU group, said the case looked suspiciously like a political prosecution hidden behind trumped-up criminal charges and needed to be “clarified.”
“There’s a question mark when it comes to this arrest,” Cederberg said. “There are accusations that belong to the category of common crime, not really political, and (our visit) is a way of showing our interest that the case should advance and get clarified.”
Sweden currently holds the rotating EU presidency.
The government has been accused by the Cuban Commission on Human Rights, a group that tracks political prisoners, of using short detentions to quell dissent.
Cuba views dissidents as mercenaries working on behalf of its long-time enemy the United States, which openly supports opposition groups.
Cederberg said there were several recent cases of government opponents being jailed on nonpolitical
Cuba may be “trying to invent something new and that is very worrying,” he said.
“We have given signals (to Cuba) on this case and (expressed) concern in general about the situation,” he said.
Ferrer’s wife said she believed he was arrested because the Cuban government feared his Malecon walks could provoke wider protests amid the country’s economic crisis.
“All this is theater by state security,” she said.
The EU, which has 27 member nations, lifted diplomatic sanctions and re-established cooperation with Cuba last year after a five-year rift over Cuban political prisoners.
But the EU said it would review Cuba’s human rights situation annually.
Cuba and the EU resumed political dialogue in May, when Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said the country has no political prisoners because all inmates had undergone due legal process.
The Cuban Commission on Human Rights said in a recent report that there were 208 political prisoners on the island.
Another European diplomat said the EU did not view Thursday’s row as a threat to warmer EU-Cuba relations.
“The EU has a dialogue with Cuba and we very much want it to continue,” he said. “In our view, (the visit) was very much in line with what we’re doing here. We don’t see it as meddling in Cuban internal or legal affairs.”
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and John O'Callaghan