HAVANA — Guillermo “Coco” Farinas became one of Cuba’s best-known dissidents by starving himself — launching two dozen hunger strikes demanding government concessions on human rights.
He started his 25th strike in late July with the demand that President Raul Castro halt what Farinas called the worsening repression of dissidents since Cuba and the United States declared detente in December 2014.
As the strike entered its second month, the dissident’s backers claimed he was close to death. On Monday those worries evaporated. Farinas announced he was ending his protest because the European Parliament had just voted to link improved ties with Cuba and progress on human rights. Also on the table: naming Farinas a special parliamentary adviser on civil society on the island.
The only problem: Not a word of it was true.
The “Farinas Amendment” was the creation of a faked website that masqueraded as the blog of the European Parliament for nearly a week, issuing reports widely distributed by anti-Castro Spanish-language media including the U.S. government-funded Marti news network.
“It’s really weird,” said Kristof Kleemann, the chief of staff for German member of parliament Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, whom the bogus site described as the sponsor of the “Farinas Amendment.” ”Our people tell us that the website that published this article, that this website is a fake website.”
Farinas charged that the site was a dirty trick by the Cuban government aimed at fooling him into ending a protest that was drawing too much attention. There’s no public evidence of a tie to the Cuban government or, indeed, anyone else. Because it was hosted on WordPress, a widely used blogging platform, the page’s individual registration is impossible for the public to trace.
“Creating this page was an act of espionage,” Farinas said. “They were under pressure from the hunger strike and the possibility of my dying and they created a fake page so that I would stop.”
Farinas and his camp frequently speak directly with European diplomats based in Havana but did not check Monday’s report with them before declaring an end to the strike, according to Jorge Luis Artiles, a dissident from the central city of Santa Clara who has served as Farinas’ spokesman during much of the protest. Artiles said Farinas’ camp had learned of the report in a call from backers in Miami. He declined to provide further details.
The Cuban government did not respond to a request for comment, but it has long accused Farinas and fellow dissidents of being charlatans focused on winning support from anti-Castro exiles in South Florida. Hunger strikes have been the target of particular skepticism, with government backers accusing strikers of secretly eating and drinking away from the public eye.
“There’s no precedent for Cuban authorities publishing false information of this type or imitating established institutions as we see in this case,” said Iroel Sanchez, a Havana opinion columnist and blogger with close ties to the Cuban government. “Mr. Farinas himself has been a systematic source of false information about himself and his ‘activism’ for profit, inventing all sorts of myths.”
Artiles said Farinas had been on a total “hunger and thirst” strike at home but was given intravenous nutrition and hydration after he was rushed unconscious to the hospital five times during his strike.
Farinas said the discovery that the report was fake would not cause him to restart his protest.
“In a hunger strike, once you start to drink water again, going back would be madness,” he said.
Farinas’ strike came at a critical time for Cuba’s small, factionalized community of outspoken government opponents. Once a centerpiece of U.S. policy on Cuba, traditional dissidents have found themselves on the sidelines as the U.S. abandons its support for swift regime change in favor of gradual reform. On issues from economic ties to environmental cooperation, the Obama administration is talking directly, amicably and frequently with Castro’s government.
The fake webpage has been taken down, but at least one archived copy remains available. The page was loaded with genuine articles taken from the Spanish-language section of the European Parliament site, giving a casual or inattentive reader the impression that the page was well-established. The content that is still visible was added on Sept. 5 and Sept. 6 — suggesting the site may have been built in about 24 hours or less.
“It looks very professional, but then they make all sort of technical mistakes,” Kleemann said. “They cite a certain report in that article and that report is actually a report from the trade committee in the parliament on Jordan.”
The reports about the “Farinas Amendment” were shared on social media dozens of times directly from the fake WordPress site. The first share appears to have been on Artiles’ Facebook account.
The account appears to have been active throughout the strike, posting articles supporting Farinas and bitterly criticizing the Castro government.
Artiles told The Associated Press Tuesday evening that he had not been on Facebook for nearly two months. He said he only discovered in the last week that hackers had long been in control of his account, and he alleged that the government was responsible.
“They stole my page and it’s a fraud because it’s been 56 days since I’ve been online,” he said. “They’re publishing fake news.”
Associated Press writer Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ARodriguezAP