Monday, September 17, 2012

Hunger Strike underway in Cuba raises moral and ethical considerations

"After feeling how my health has worsened due to spending several days on hunger strike, and reacting to what appeared in various media about the start date and the demand of the protest I want to clarify the following.
First: I started the hunger strike on Friday, September 7 at 6 pm and not on Monday, 10 as did other opposition activists after giving a press conference.
Second: My demand is the release of political prisoner Jorge Vázquez Chaviano, or failing that to give a satisfactory solution acceptable to him.  I am also protesting for the deplorable human rights situation in Cuba that passes through the policy of systematic persecution against my person which means in practice house arrest.
Third: For reasons of principle and not confiding on the existing health care system, controlled by the political police, I do not accept medical attention. From what follows above only in a state of unconsciousness, relatives and countrymen by their own initiative, motivated by humanitarian feelings, will surely transfer me to a health center." - Jorge Luis García Pérez "Antúnez" Message to Cubans inside and outside of Cuba

Jorge Luis García Pérez "Antúnez" on hunger strike

"We respect any person who goes on a hunger strike. That method of struggle is not ours. We're women who are never going to do it, and although we disapprove of it, we're going to give them all the moral and spiritual support we can." - Berta Soler, Leader of the Ladies in White Movement

This evening Bertha Antunez sat down and explained the reasons that a large group of Cubans have decided to take the unprecedented action of going on hunger strike to demand the freedom of an unjustly imprisoned compatriot. Among the activists who are now risking their lives is her brother, Jorge Luis García Pérez "Antúnez". She is extremely worried about her brother and the others who have resorted to this course of action.

"Antúnez" began the hunger strike at 6pm on September 7, 2012 and today marks nine days on hunger strike with his health in decline. There are several reasons that led Jorge Luis to take this drastic course of action and for so many others to join him:
An ongoing crackdown in which scores of activists have been harassed, terrorized, beaten and detained that his been intensifying along with a failure of the international press to report on it. In the month of August alone there were over 500 documented politically motivated arrests. In addition opposition leaders such as Oswaldo Paya and Laura Pollan have died under suspicious circumstances.

The escalation of violence led to the destruction of the home of nonviolent activist Misahel Valdés Díaz, who was also detained by State Security agents. His wife and child were also terrorized during the attack.

Finally, Jorge Vázquez Chaviano who was unjustly imprisoned while traveling to Havana to attend the Mass of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI and sentenced to prison until September 9, 2012 was not released.

Jorge Vázquez Chaviano began his own hunger strike as September 9 gave way to September 10 and he had not been released. More than 20 others joined in during the following days including the dissident economist Marta Beatriz Roque. 

The Cuban Catholic Church has expressed its concerns regarding the hunger strikers stating that they are following events closely and praying for them. At the same time the Church spokesman has stated that the Church opposes hunger strikes as a form of auto-aggression even when it is in the defense of the right to that very life. This position was also held by the Church in Ireland with IRA hunger strikers in 1981. The Ladies in White also appear to hold this position.

The Cuban Church's position raises a logical question. It appears that hunger strikes are unacceptable under any circumstances even when it is in the defense of one's own life.  Now the Cathecism of the Catholic Church has a doctrine of "legitimate defense which states in part:

2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. "The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one's own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not."
2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one's own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:
If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one's own life than of another's.66
2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others.[...]
 If one's life is in danger, or that of a compatriot, and undertaking a hunger strike as a means to defend one's own life or the life of another although causing measurable harm to avoid a greater harm not morally justifiable? This is not to say that all hunger strikes are morally justifiable or well thought out but that at least in principle under certain circumstances some of them constitute a legitimate defense.

Nonviolence expert, Michael Nagler in an Introduction to Nonviolence filmed at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 2006 offered the following analysis on hunger strikes within a nonviolent context in the video above starting at 46 minutes and 38 seconds stating:
"This is not a case of suicide. You are not killing yourself. You are risking death. What you are doing is putting your life into the hands of another person." ... "You are not killing yourself but you are saying to the person that your behavior is so unacceptable that if you continue it its going to kill me. It is an extreme case of taking on the suffering that is in a situation." ...This is different from a threat because what you are saying to the person is "I am going to exhibit to you mirror back to you the ultimate consequences of what you are doing." ... "This is an act of truth. You are killing us - you are killing our people and I'm going to show you that you are doing it to awaken your conscience."...Thats why you have to be carrying on a conversation on a nonverbal level.

There are several questions that any individual contemplating the extreme action of going on hunger strike should contemplate. First, are there any other out of the over 198 nonviolent actions that can be taken that should be tried before resorting to this life risking action? Secondly, who are you trying to persuade into changing their behavior?  Do they care whether you live or die? Third, is this a life or death situation that requires placing your life on the line? Finally, can you succeed in achieving your objective.

Others have tried and failed whereas others have succeeded in using this tactic in Cuba under the current regime.  It is of utmost importance that activists considering this course of action to analyze their particular situation to determine the moral, ethical, and strategic soundness of such an extreme course of action. At the same time those who wish to question the soundness of their decisions must also take into account the circumstances that these human rights defenders confront in a totalitarian communist dictatorship that systematically violates human rights and dignity.

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