BY JUAN O. TAMAYO | Miami Herald
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 on February 22, 2010 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 struggle.’’
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 Spring.’’
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 alleged.
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 “premeditated murder.’’
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 Banes cemetery.
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.’’