Cuba dissidents: Dead hunger striker not forgotten
By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press Writer Will Weissert, Associated
Press Writer – Thu Feb 25, 4:38 pm ET
HAVANA – Cuba's opposition community pledged Thursday to seize upon the
international outcry over a hunger-striking dissident's death in prison
and increase pressure on the communist government to improve its human
But whether the tiny and divided activist groups can have any real
effect on the daily lives of ordinary Cubans remains to be seen.
Relatives and a few supporters attended a sunrise funeral for Orlando
Zapata Tamayo, a 42-year-old plumber and carpenter who had been jailed
since 2003 on charges including disrespecting authority. Zapata Tamayo
died Tuesday after accepting only water and liquid nutrients since Dec. 3.
His death has been condemned by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
and top officials from European governments. On Thursday, Spain's
socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, called for the
release of all island political prisoners.
"We must demand that the Cuban regime restore the freedom of prisoners
of conscience and respect human rights," he told Spain's parliament.
The Roman Catholic Church of Cuba issued a statement calling the death a
tragedy and asking authorities "to take appropriate measures so that
situations like this are not repeated."
President Raul Castro took the unprecedented step of expressing public
regret for Zapata Tamayo's death. But he adamantly denied the prisoner
was mistreated and used his comments to take a shot at Washington,
saying the only torture taking place on the island is at the U.S.
military base at Guantanamo Bay, where terror suspects are held.
Cuba dismisses dissidents like Zapata Tamayo as paid U.S. agents out to
topple the government. A blog posted on a government Web site described
Zapata Tamayo as a common criminal, and accused the opposition and the
international news media of falsely turning him into a martyr.
"Zapata was murdered by the counterrevolution," wrote the blogger,
longtime state essayist Enrique Ubieta.
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Havana-based Commission on Human Rights
and National Reconciliation, said that police and dozens of plainclothes
state security agents watched but did not intervene in Zapata Tamayo's
funeral service, held in his native Banes. Banes is a sugar town in
Cuba's east that housed employees of the Boston-based United Fruit
Company before Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
Sanchez said at least 100 activists, many from nearby, eastern locales,
were detained and held just long enough to prevent them from attending
"This is going to galvanize resistance against the regime," he said.
Dissidents plan to use Zapata Tamayo's death to shed more light on what
they say is their government's blatant disregard for human rights and
"I think there's going to be a 'before' and an 'after' in the murder of
Tamayo," said Martha Beatriz Roque, a state-trained economist and
veteran Havana dissident who drove more than 1,100 miles roundtrip to
attend Zapata Tamayo's wake.
But the opposition is small and largely ignored on the island, and its
members have long been vexed by internal bickering and infiltration by
"It's a challenge for the opposition," said Roque, one of 75 noted
dissidents jailed during a government crackdown on the opposition in
March 2003. Roque was granted provisional parole for health reasons and
herself has staged several lengthy hunger strikes. "We have to better
coordinate our activities," she said.
Many of the 75 activists jailed during what they refer to as the "Black
Spring" issued a joint statement saying they know "the suffering,
injustices, humiliations, punishments and poor treatment committed
against those human beings in the prisons of Cuba merely for having the
dignity and honor to defend our rights."
Others have initiated small acts of protest.
Vladimiro Alejo, 46, a former employee of a state-run factory that made
keys, served two years in prison for disrespecting authority.
Upon his release in October, he painted his pumpkin-orange home in
Guanabacoa, outside Havana, black in protest, scrawling "Viva Cuba
Libre!" across the facade.
After Zapata Tamayo's death, he added a cardboard sign reading, "We are
in mourning for Orlando Zapata Tamayo."
"I didn't know him personally, but I was in the same jails, a political
prisoner like he was, so I know what he suffered," said Alejo who,
together with about 15 supporters, declared a four-day mourning period.
Alejo, his teenage son and six others share their wind-swept home with
four sickly mutts who live in a cardboard box under their 1960s Eastern
Bloc television. The walls are adorned with bumper stickers and placards
reading "Change" and other anti-government slogans.
He and the others went on the porch Thursday and yelled "Down with Fidel
Castro! Down with Raul Castro!"
There was no reaction on the street, but Alejo was not perturbed.
"I don't live for my neighbors," he said. "Some people support me. Some
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