Starved and dangerous, &c.


Readers of this column have heard perhaps more than they want about hunger strikes in Cuba. In late February, the prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after an 83-day strike. Yes, 83 days — that’s a long time. And his jailers did not make it any easier for him, as I detailed in this piece. More about that piece in a moment.

There is another hunger strike going on in Cuba now, by Guillermo Fariñas. Impromptus readers are well familiar with him. He is an independent journalist — not currently in prison — who is a perpetual thorn in the dictatorship’s side. Raúl Castro lashed out at him the other day, and at the dead Zapata. He said that hunger strikes such as theirs were “blackmail” organized by foreign countries, out to get Cuba. That’s how the Castro brothers talk.

He also said that Cuban hunger strikers were glorified by “Western media.” I say: If only. What’s Raúl reading, National Review? (For a news story on Castro and his statements, go here.)

In the March 22 NR, I had an essay about hunger striking — that is the piece I linked to above. And this is a relatively complicated subject, morally and otherwise. It’s not necessarily out of bounds to refer to a hunger strike as blackmail. Here is a paragraph from the essay:

A hunger strike is an extreme act, and an extremely coercive one. In a sense, the striker has a gun to his head, saying, “If you don’t meet my demands, I will kill myself. What’s more, it will be your fault.” People go on hunger strikes in the service of good causes and bad causes. Great men do it and wicked men do it. They do it in prison and out. They do it in democracies and under tyrannies. Some strikers are mad, others are perfectly sane. Some are mere showboaters, some are in earnest, even saintly. Some strike for a limited period of time — “I will deny myself food for a week. Let’s see what that achieves.” Others vow to go unto the end.

Who are some of the great men who have gone on hunger strike? Well, to consider the Soviet Union alone, one thinks immediately of Sakharov, Sharansky, and Bukovsky. And, in The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn describes a mass hunger strike on the part of prisoners. It went on for three days. It did not do much good, however, because no one outside the camp heard about it. There were not many inquisitive reporters hanging around the Gulag.

I suppose my introduction to hunger strikes was the IRA — Bobby Sands and all those boys, wasting away angelically. Even murderers and maimers can look pitiable as they waste away unto death. Vojislav Seselj, a sidekick to Milosevic, hunger-struck at The Hague. Terry Nichols, who conspired in the Oklahoma City bombing, has gone on strike: for a different diet, which must include a wheat-bran supplement.

Nichols is an inmate in Colorado. As I say in my piece, “Planners of mass murder in America are very picky prisoners.”

In any case, hunger strikes are, again, a complicated, many-faceted subject. I recently talked with Armando Valladares about it. He is the Cuban poet and former political prisoner who wrote Against All Hope, a classic memoir. Valladares went on hunger strike eleven times. The shortest was his first, three days; the longest was 36. He confirmed to me that, under a totalitarian dictatorship, a hunger strike is a last, desperate act. A person undertakes it when he feels he has no other choice.

And I liked what a spokesman for Amnesty International, Gerardo Ducos, said at the time of Zapata’s death: “Faced with a prolonged prison sentence, the fact that Orlando Zapata Tamayo felt he had no other avenue available to him but to starve himself in protest is a terrible indictment of the continuing repression of political dissidents in Cuba.”

Before I leave this subject, for now, let me just share the final paragraph of that NR piece:

I remember being horrified in 2008 when an inmate in [the Cuban] gulag — Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, an independent journalist [like Fariñas] — sewed his mouth shut. My horror was magnified when I saw an artist’s rendering of what the prisoner might look like in that condition. He had been tortured for so long, and was so deprived of hope, he committed this desperate, barely comprehensible act. What would we do in his shoes? Luckily, the likes of us will never find out.

Luckily, yeah.

Last Friday, I dwelt at some length on Ed Koch and his present alarm over Obama — particularly where Israel policy is concerned. Yesterday, the former mayor came out with a high-octane column: here. He asks,

“What would we do if Venezuela invited Russia to build a missile-launch pad, or Russia provided Venezuela with the plans and materials for building nuclear weapons? Would there be a replay of the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960s?”

He answers,

“Based on our continuing failure to confront North Korea and Iran with regard to their nuclear activities, I suspect we would do nothing. I fear that we have lost the battle and lost our nerve.”

Wow. He goes on to say — buckle your seatbelt — “There is a foul whiff of Munich and appeasement in the air.” And he concludes with, “One well-known supporter of Israel, with great access to the White House, said to me recently, ‘I have never been so terrified.’ Me too.”

Wow again. Bear in mind that Koch is a Democrat who, with extreme pride and certainty, supported Obama over McCain.

Many people are asking whether American Jews will abandon Obama and the Democratic party in 2012. I for one am skeptical. Forgive my cynicism — or call it weariness — but if Obama bombed Tel Aviv and mandated the eating of pork, American Jews would stick by him: because the liberal-Democratic faith is the strongest faith of all.

Norman Podhoretz wrote a book about this, Why Are Jews Liberals? He wrote it, he says, because that is the question he has most frequently been asked: the question posed in his title.

I was taught, from the cradle — taught by my environment — that the Republican party stood for racism, bigotry, war, racism again, disregard of the poor, racism, backwardness, racism, racism . . . And yet I grew up and found it wasn’t so. But growing up — as I’ve said so many times in this column, and elsewhere, and in so many ways — can be hard to do.