Cuba Politics

Anniversary of Orlando Zapata Tamayo death

Posted February 21, 2011 by publisher in Cuba Politics.

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.


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.’’

Member Comments

On February 22, 2011, Robert wrote:

Ironic that Tamayo, Batista, the Diaz Ballart family and even the Castros from near by Biran all came from or lived in “remote” Banes!!

On February 22, 2011, ghirald wrote:

what irony!,How this big lier can still seated over so many murdered people,so many families divided,a great pain invade every cuban heart,and those who call themselve democrat,including many presidents, swallow their daily food without a tin of feeling toward the suffering people.

On February 22, 2011, ghirald wrote:

Zapata Tamayo no ha muerto
Quien ha dicho que haya en Cuba
Tamayo ya se murio!
No senor,yo se que no
Ese gigante no ha muerto
El esta en el lugar cierto
Al lado de “El Creador”.
Y a esta hora de dolor
Ha arrojado tanta luz
Que su imagen es azul
Grande como el universo
Al verlo postado y triste
Languideciendo en su lecho
Su triste madre,sufriendo
Le pide con mil amores
Que ya su huelga abandone
Que ya no puede asi verlo
Reina luisa insistiendo
pide una y otra vez
Pero madre mire usted
Que ya yo me estoy muriendo
No quiero seguir viviendo
De esta forma tan perversa
Quiero tener mi cabeza
Tan alta como mi honor
Quiero ofrendar yo mi vida
por esta la patria mia
Quiero ser la senda y guia
para todos mis hermanos
y asi que cada cubano
No importa donde se encuentren
al fin tendamos el puente
Que tanto y tanto anoramos
quiero con este dolor
A mi pueblo darle luz
Y al divino Creador
Le pedire con certeza
Que termine la torpeza
De el indigno,sanguinario,y maldito dictador.

On February 22, 2011, publisher wrote:

Cuban rappers Los Aldeanos clash with police in Holguin

On February 22, 2011, publisher wrote:

Dozens arrested as protest gears up in Cuba

On February 24, 2011, publisher wrote:

more about detentions and arrests in Cuba.

On February 24, 2011, Yeyo wrote:

Hope that Cubans see that they can also overthrow the Castros as the Egyptians did with Mubarak and the Libyans are doing with Kaddafi.

On February 24, 2011, publisher wrote:

Castro knows that information is more dangerous than guns.

That’s why phone and internet service are lousy in Cuba… NOT because of the Embargo.

On February 25, 2011, ghirald wrote:

Over three thousand years have passed and still the mute ruins of babylon stay like a message for the future generations.the king of babylon thought he was so strong,His army ready for the action,the tall walls of the powerfull city,and that poor and insignificant man asking safeness for his life.Abrahan lincon knew that.You can fool all the people…...but castro dont.What the message said;tomorow your kingdom will fell down.

On February 25, 2011, robert wrote:

Banes Protests!!! (Click on link or cut and paste)

On March 28, 2011, miguel wrote:

I disapprove as much as anybody of prison conditions in Cuba, but I consider the denomination “prisoner of conscience” about the Cuban opposition activists problematical, especially regarding Orlando Zapata.

The other “Black Spring” prisoners were convicted under Article 91 of the Cuban Penal Code (“who in the interest of a foreign state commits an act with the objective of damaging the independence or territorial integrety of the Cuban state”) or Law 88 (on persons supporting US policy against Cuba). Especially Law 88 from 1999, a response to the “Helms-Burton Act”, has been criticised for opening for arbitrary decisions.

Mr. Zapata was not convicted under any of these two acts, but got three years for violent behaviour. He played only a marginal role in the opposition groups. Violent and agressive behaviour in prison subsequently aggravated his sentence.

Most of the other imprisoned dissidents were convicted for belonging to what in the US Code is termed “organizations subject to foreign control” (18 US Code § 2386). I don’t know all the cases in detail, but at least in some it has been proved that they were financed and guided by the US diplomatic mission in Havana.

Amnesty International’s own definition of “prisoner of conscience” excludes “those people who have conspired with a foreign government to overthrow their own.”

On April 04, 2011, miguel wrote:

And now we are talking about dissidents in Cuba: I noticed that this journal did not bring the story about the secret diplomatic cable (obtained by WikiLeaks), where the chief of the US Interests Section in Havana described the dissident movement as largely ineffectual, due to factors including internal conflict, outsized egos, preoccupation with money, outdated agendas and infiltration by the Cuban government.

A Reuter story from December 17 about the leaked cable can be accessed at

On April 04, 2011, publisher wrote:

what’s your point?

On April 05, 2011, miguel wrote:

You gave the readers a human interest newspaper story about the poor fellow from Banes. OK, but why not the diplomatic cable on the lack of political perspective for the dissident groups and for the US “democracy promotion” programs? You may dislike senator Kerry, but here he seems to have good arguments.

On April 05, 2011, publisher wrote:

Thanks but still not really getting it.

The “poor fellow” from Banes. Zapata? The man who died for his country? That poor fellow?

Agree about the statement on the dissidents for the most part.

I don’t like Senator Kerry but I’m glad he blocked the funds.

On April 05, 2011, miguel wrote:

I definitely did not mean “poor fellow” as anything derogatory. But please allow me not to take the story about “the man who died for his country” at face value. It might well be a classical myth.

I just wondered why you did not bring the WikiPedia story in a journal giving so much attention to the dissident groups.

On April 05, 2011, publisher wrote:

A leaked cable from an anonymous source and you believe that over the world wide confirmed reports about Zapata’s death?

You Communists always make me laugh.

Anyway, I didn’t post the wikileaks story because it wasn’t news. The dissident groups are not organized and never have been.

For the record, I have never supported the Martz Beatriz Roque types but openly support Oswaldo Paya and Yoani Sanchez.

I don’t support any USAID efforts in Cuba and I am against the US Embargo.

There, that will give you something to chew on.

I give you all this information to honor Zapata and the title of this article.

On April 05, 2011, miguel wrote:

The State Department has not denied the authenticity of the WikiLeaks cables, and the chief of the US Interests Section in Havana is not an anonymous source.

I do not doubt the reports of Zapata’s death, only your assertion about his motive. There is no reason to doubt his hatred of the regime and his courage which led him to suicide. But nothing indicates that he was an idealist.

I still think it an interesting story that the US Interests Section in a diplomatic cable to the State Department declares that dissident groups, they have supported, seem without any political perspective.