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Top dissident calls Cuban elections a "farce"

2008-01-21 / AFP Wire Service, Warsaw

Leading Cuban dissident Hector Palacios Ruiz on Monday in Warsaw termed Cuba's Sunday election a "farce" and said he believed "change will come soon" in his communist homeland ruled by Fidel Castro.

"Everyone knows Fidel Castro is the greatest impediment to democratic change in Cuba -- everyone also knows he almost no longer exists," Palacios Ruiz said at a press conference in the Polish capital launching a petition for the release of Cuban political prisoners.

"Every Cuban who lives at least a year will see a free Cuba," he said, insisting the time was ripe for democratic change in his Caribbean-island homeland.

"Cuban society is ready for change and there are people among our dissidents who are ready to take power," he said. "I hope in the future there will be real elections in Cuba just like in Poland at the beginning of the transformation." A former Soviet satellite, Poland shed communism in 1989 in a bloodless transition to democracy and a market economy negotiated by the Communist Party and the Solidarity democratic opposition.

More than eight million of Cuba's 11 people were eligible to vote Sunday for the exclusively Communist Party candidates for the National Assembly. The body will name 31 lawmakers to the Council of State that chooses the president. Ailing communist dictator Fidel Castro, 81, was among the 614 uncontested candidates. His younger brother and interim president Raul Castro said Sunday the National Assembly would elect Cuba's next president February 24, amid speculation Fidel might not be its choice for the first time in almost five decades.

The future of the aging revolutionary who took power after the 1959 revolution he led, has been in question since July 2006 when he handed power to brother Raul on an temporary basis while recovering from surgery.

In March 2003, a court loyal to Castro's regime sentenced Hector Palacios Ruiz, now 65, to 25 years in prison for opposition activities. He served three years of the sentence before being released in 2006 on humanitarian grounds and travelled to Spain last year where authorities offered medical assistance to help save his failing health. Palacios Ruiz has been arrested 20 times and already spent 18 months in prison during the 1990s.

"I'll return to Cuba despite the fact I'm facing another 21 years in prison -- I feel it's my obligation," Palacios Ruiz said Monday. He intends to return to Cuba in March.

Lech Walesa, Poland's anti-communist Solidarity trade union icon, and economist Leszek Balcerowicz, architect of Poland's transition from communism to a market economy, on Monday launched an international petition for the release of more than 200 Cuban political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. "We call upon Cuban authorities to free prisoners of conscience and political prisoners in Cuba. Their imprisonment is a violation of fundamental human rights," says the appeal read aloud by Balcerowicz at the press conference with Palacios Ruiz. The appeal is also sponsored by Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's leading liberal daily. "A subjugated Poland experienced great solidarity from free societies. It is our moral obligation to support the freedom movement in Cuba," it says. Gazeta Wyborcza will post the petition on its website for public signatures before it is presented to Cuban diplomats accredited to Poland.

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