US awards outspoken Cuban dissident with 'Woman of Courage' honor

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HAVANA (Reuters) -The United States honored a Cuban dissident who for decades has defied the communist-run government with her on-island advocacy of human rights, a move criticized as hypocritical by Havana.

Marta Beatriz Roque, 78, a former economics professor and outspoken critic of the Cuban government, was one of 12 recipients globally of the U.S. International Woman of Courage award, according to a U.S. State Department statement on Friday.

Roque was the only woman among 75 dissidents imprisoned in a 2003 crackdown on the opposition that drew international condemnation.

"Ms. Roque is one of the longest-standing members of the historic opposition fighting for greater freedoms in Cuba," said the U.S. statement on the award winners.

Roque has often been detained during her 35 years advocating for human rights and political reform on the island, she told Reuters in an interview in Havana before the award was announced. She said she served nearly five years in prison in two separate sentences.

Roque called her time in prison "horrible" but said her work had been necessary to raise awareness of a growing anti-government movement inside Cuba.

"(We) let the world know that we existed and that we were being repressed," she said, recalling a time when few people - even those inside Cuba - knew of her campaigning.

The U.S. decision to honor a Cuban dissident will do little to thaw the still frosty relationship between Cuba and the United States, which has seen scarce improvement since Democratic U.S. President Joe Biden took over from Republican Donald Trump in 2021.

Biden has criticized Cuba's heavy-handed response to widespread protests in July 2021, which led to hundreds jailed on crimes ranging from disorderly contact to sedition.

Cuba and the United States have long exchanged barbs around human rights, with Cuba accusing the U.S. of systemic racism in policing and criticizing it for its treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and support of Israel in Gaza.

"The U.S. State Department releases awards for supposedly brave women, while arming and financing Israel's genocidal aggression against Palestinians, including women and children," Cuba foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez said on social media on Wednesday.

Recipients were invited to a reception hosted by U.S. first lady Jill Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the White House in Washington on March 4, but Roque did not attend, saying the Cuban government had forbidden her to travel to the United States.

"They won't let me leave," she said in the interview ahead of the awards ceremony. "The government of the United States knows I won't participate. "Sadly, I won't be with the other women there ... to represent Cuba."

Cuba has long accused Roque of receiving funding from the U.S. government, which she denies.

Since March 2007, the U.S. Department of State has recognized dozens of women with the "Woman of Courage" award.

Prior recipients include Brazilian prosecutor Simone Sibilio, who led the fight against organized crime in Rio de Janeiro, Bolor Ganbold, the first female general to serve in the Mongolian armed forces, and Alba Rueda, a transgender activist and politician from Argentina.

U.S. diplomats nominate candidates and the winners are chosen by the Secretary of State.

Roque said she was grateful for the recognition but said that change would only come from inside Cuba.

"We in Cuba must find liberty from within, without depending on the U.S. or another country to help us," she said.

(Reporting by Marc Frank and Dave Sherwood, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)