Posted on Friday, 03.05.10
Most deaths largely ignored
BY MARIA C. WERLAU
The recent death by hunger strike of Orlando Zapata Tamayo is not a
first-time event in Cuba. Sadly, we have records of another 12 political
prisoners who died in hunger strikes during the Castro regime. More such
deaths are probably unrecorded.
The Cuban regime has launched an orchestrated campaign to portray Zapata
as a dangerous criminal behaving bizarrely. Character assassination is a
favored tactic to manipulate public opinion. But Amnesty International
does not designate “prisoners of conscience'' lightly. In this case the
facts are clear: The 42-year-old brick mason's “crimes'' involved his
peaceful opposition to a ruthless dictatorship.
No free country jails anyone for “disrespect to the figure of the
Comandante'' for signing petitions for change.
Zapata turned to this extreme form of self-empowerment and protest when
all other options had failed after years of unjust confinement,
beatings, tortures and abuses. He demanded his safety and recognition as
a prisoner of conscience, asking for no better treatment than the
Batista dictatorship gave Fidel and Raúl Castro for leading the Moncada
Army barracks attack. They enjoyed special privileges for political
prisoners — comfortable living conditions, media interviews, visitors,
plentiful reading materials, correspondence and participation in group
sports. Moreover, Batista caved to public demands, and all attackers
were freed in short order. Fidel served 18 months of a 15-year sentence.
In contrast, during the 51-year Castro regime, political prisoners have
typically been sentenced to decades in jail and sentences are often
extended once completed. Treatment has been consistently appalling —
hard labor, torture, beatings, malnourishment, denial of medical care,
abuses of all kinds, and even killings at the hands of guards.
Punishment cells are particularly horrifying.
Hundreds of political prisoners at a time have resorted to hunger
strikes to pressure a regime that only bends to suit its carefully
crafted public image. Their ironclad conviction and willpower sometimes
leads to improvements, often temporary.
Cuba currently has around 200 political prisoners; many are so ill that
their life is at stake. Ariel Sigler, 46, a former boxing champion,
entered prison in 2003 strong and fit. Today, he is a near skeleton,
paralyzed from the waist down and dying of an undiagnosed condition. His
litany of ailments includes severe abdominal and throat pain, profuse
rectal bleeding, intense headaches, painful urination and more.
Many prisoners in facilities islandwide develop a similarly mysterious
pattern of illness beginning with impaired digestive absorption. The
files of the defunct East German Secret Police, Stasi, reveal widespread
cooperation with its Cuban counterparts, including training in
repressing prisoners. Collaboration with former Communist Bulgaria
reportedly centered on toxic substances. It is not farfetched to think
that slow poisoning is part of the methodology of targeted terror.
Prisoners have long reported tainted food and mysterious injections.
Juan Carlos González Leiva heads the Cuban Council of Human Rights
Rapporteurs, founded in 2007 to gather information on human-rights
abuses throughout the island. Leiva reports around 250 penitentiary
facilities and 300 police detention centers holding an estimated 100,000
Monthly salary of $18
Most are confined for economic crimes — primarily theft, “sacrificing
cattle'' and black-market activities. Failed socialist central planning
and state ownership of practically all means of production, coupled with
an average monthly salary of $18, leave hardly any alternatives to
secure basic sustenance. Hundreds also land in jail for the unique
“crime'' of “pre-criminal dangerousness,'' a proclivity to disturb the
social order. They would be considered political prisoners if their
names and stories were known.
Cuba's prisons breed rampant disease, ghastly acts of self-mutilation,
mental disorders and extreme suffering for prisoners and their families.
Knowing exactly what goes on is impossible, however, because the Red
Cross and international monitoring groups cannot inspect and the Cuban
government provides no data.
The Council monitors 40 prisons via reports from political prisoners,
representing 16 percent of total penitentiaries. From 2007 to 2009, it
reported at least 39 suicides or alleged suicides, 53 deaths for medical
negligence and seven extrajudicial killings by guards.
Most of the victims were young men, their stories ignored. In 2007, for
example, Manuel Diende Rosa went on hunger strike at a Camagüey prison
to demand his rights and reportedly committed suicide in a punishment
cell. Extrapolating 99 deaths from 16 percent of monitored prisons and
excluding police holding centers, we determine that 618 preventable
deaths may have occurred in prisons from 2007 to 2009. This is alarming
and widely ignored.
Maria C. Werlau is executive director of Cuba Archive, a nonprofit
project documenting the loss of life during the Cuban revolution.
Most deaths largely ignored – Other Views – MiamiHerald.com (5 March 2010)