Posted on Sunday, 02.20.11
Cuba braces as dissidents remember a martyr
Castro critics will commemorate the 1-year anniversary of the death of
Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who was a political prisoner.
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
Orlando Zapata Tamayo was one of Cuba's least-known political prisoners,
a 42-year-old Afro-Cuban plumber and bricklayer from the remote eastern
town of Banes.
But when he died one year ago Wednesday at the end of an 83-day hunger
strike, he became the face of the island's dissidence – his photo
projected onto Cuban government buildings, his name invoked in
condemnations of the Castro regime around the world.
Zapata's death energized other dissidents, turned hunger strikes into a
credible weapon against the communist system and arguably forced Raúl
Castro to ease the harassment of the Ladies in White and later to start
freeing their 52 jailed men.
The anniversary of his death on Wednesday will be marked, on the island
and abroad, by Castro critics as an example of the revolution's human
rights abuses and lack of concern for the life of a dissident.
"No one should allow the date to pass by because finding a martyr in the
21st century is not easy,'' said dissident Guillermo Fariñas, who
launched a hunger strike a day after Zapata died and halted it the day
after Castro agreed to free the 52 men.
Fariñas and several other dissidents in Cuba declined to reveal their
plans for marking the anniversary.
"I don't want to make the work of State Security any easier,'' he said
by telephone from his home in the central city of Santa Clara.
State security agents, however, are widely expected to detain scores if
not hundreds of dissidents around the island to avert any large
gatherings of opponents on Wednesday, said Havana human rights activist
Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz.
Zapata Tamayo's mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, told El Nuevo Herald
Saturday that security agents already have her house "and all of Banes
surrounded to prevent the arrival of the brothers who support us in this
Agents armed with rifles are patrolling the woodlands behind her house
and others are checking the documents of all passengers on buses
arriving in Banes, said the mother, who was detained for 12 hours Friday
after a confrontation with a security agent.
The anniversary of Zapata's death comes at a sensitive time for Cuba –
amid the pro-democracy demonstrations in Iran and Yemen and in the
aftermath of popular revolts that toppled the governments of Tunisia and
Egypt. The 24th also is the anniversary of Cuba's shootdown of two
Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996 in which four people were killed.
Zapata was 35 years old when he was sentenced to three years in prison
in 2003 for ''disobedience" and "defiance.'' Amnesty International
declared him a "prisoner of conscience,'' though he was not among the 75
dissidents arrested that year in a crackdown known as Cuba's "Black
By the time he died, his stubborn insistence in denouncing prison abuses
had gotten him additional sentences totaling 36 years – and what fellow
inmates described as a string of beatings.
"A few times I saw guards pull him out of his cell with no shirt and
hands cuffed. They would throw him to the floor and drag him by his feet
about 200 meters over rough cement,'' fellow prisoner Efrén Fernández
was quoted as saying in a human rights report.
Zapata also spent several days in his cell with his hands cuffed behind
his back and to his also-cuffed ankles in a "torture'' known as "the
little rocker,'' Fernández added in the report, filed two months after
the prisoner's death.
He stopped eating on Dec. 3, 2009, to protest the abuses at the Kilo 7
prison in Camagüey province. Prison guards, trying to force him to
abandon the hunger strike, then denied him water for 18 days, his mother
His back was "bruised from blows'' when he was finally transferred to a
Camagüey hospital on Feb. 17, the mother declared at the time. "He was
skin and bones, and his stomach was sunk in.''
When Zapata died six days later, she accused the government of
Reports of his death were published around the world and sparked broad
condemnations of the Cuban government, though the island's official news
media did not mention the event for several days – and then only to try
to portray him as a common criminal.
The criticisms of Cuba mushroomed when Fariñas declared he would not eat
or drink until 26 ailing political prisoners were freed – or he died. A
psychiatrist already looking skeletal from 23 previous hunger strikes,
his threat was taken seriously.
Zapata "spent 80-some days on a hunger strike and no one paid attention.
It was his death that changed all that,'' said Farinas, whose own strike
was followed closely by foreign journalists and diplomats in Havana.
CARDINAL STEPS IN
Although the government initially said it would not bow to Fariñas'
"blackmail,'' a public hospital later admitted him and kept him alive
with round after round of intravenous fluids usually very difficult to
find on the island.
Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega later noted that he decided to approach the
Raúl Castro government in the spring of 2010 because the death of Zapata
and the outrage it had sparked "was causing instability.''
Following Ortega's approach, government-organized mobs in April stopped
their brutal harassment of the Ladies in White, all female relatives of
the 75 peaceful dissidents jailed in the "Black Spring.''
And on July 7, Ortega announced Castro had agreed to free the last 52 of
the 75 still in prison. Two dozen already had been freed for health
reasons. All but seven of the 52, plus two dozen other political
prisoners, have now been freed.
Fariñas halted his fast the next day – after 135 days.
Outside Cuba, ''Zapata Lives!'' became a rallying cry for a broad array
of groups: exiles who denounced his "murder,'' governments that
condemned the island's human rights record and black activists who
pointed out that Zapata was black. A Miami group produced a one-hour
documentary on Zapata's life. A Web site "Orlando
Zapata Tamayo: I Accuse The Cuban Government,'' gathered 53,000
signatures; The U.S. House and Senate approved resolutions praising
Zapata and lashing Havana.
Exile artist Geandy Pavón, in a protest that garnered much publicity,
began projecting Zapata's photo onto buildings like the Cuban diplomatic
mission in Washington and the New York auditorium where Cuban singer
Silvio Rodriguez was giving a concert.
Zapata's mother told El Nuevo Herald she expects security officials will
try to block any attempts to honor him Wednesday at his grave in the
Over the past year they have repeatedly detained and strip-searched her
and her supporters, harassed their children in school and even told her
that her son had a homosexual relationship in prison, she claimed.
"But I always shout at them, 'Zapata Lives!' '' she said. "Since he
fell, our family has continued the struggle of Orlando Zapata Tamayo –
searching for freedom and democracy for all Cubans.''