A human rights conference is scheduled to open Tuesday in Havana, the capital of a regime with one of the world's worst human rights records. A driving force behind the conference is Antonio Rodiles, a democracy activist trained in physics and mathematics who has been working for years to create more space in Cuba for open debate. That space usually has been in his house, which he has turned into a kind of think tank and creative performance center for intellectuals, artists and human rights activists.
Mr. Rodiles, who left Cuba in 1998 and returned in 2007, has been a critic of the regime and has suffered for it. He was arrested, beaten and held without charge for 19 days in November 2012. Last summer, he and others started a movement, Citizen Demand for Another Cuba, urging the government to ratify and implement two U.N. covenants on human rights. Now Mr. Rodiles has organized a conference marking the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the regime of Fidel and Raul Castro does not lightly tolerate such challenges to its authority.
In a letter to Raul Castro dated last Friday, Mr. Rodiles said his activism continues to be met with threats from Cuban state security. His car tires were punctured and a “chemical liquid with a fetid smell was poured on its seats.” After that, urine was poured on the car seats. On Monday, we are told, Mr. Rodiles was confronted anew by state security.
“The situation in which we live is untenable,” Mr. Rodiles wrote in his letter. Anyone who disagrees with the regime “is destined to be treated in a humiliating and degrading way.” Cuban citizens are kept in “a total state of defenselessness” by the abusive state. “It is impossible to remain indifferent to a power that systematically steps over the dignity of citizens and its own laws with total impunity,” he wrote, “a power that orders its representatives to act as common criminals.”
We are reminded of similar calls to action a decade ago by the courageous dissident Oswaldo Paya, who sought a referendum on democracy in Cuba and who died in a suspicious car wreck on the island in 2012, along with another activist, Harold Cepero. Their deaths still cry out for independent investigation. Mr. Paya was subject to harassment similar to what Mr. Rodiles endures today.
No doubt, the Castro brothers have calculated that the oppressive power of their state apparatus will be sufficient to intimidate or overpower a handful of people at a homespun human rights conference. They are wrong. From such living rooms grows immense change. Recall that Andrei Sakharov once began a lonely quest like Mr. Paya and Mr. Rodiles, speaking out against repression when it was dangerous and only a few would dare. Mr. Rodiles has done no less, and his voice must be heard.