At this time on February 23, 2010, the news spread about the death of Cuban patriot Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who did not hesitate to offer his life when fighting for freedom and human rights in his country. He died after a 86-day hunger strike in protest against the Cuban government and its inhumane treatment of political prisoners in the country.
Zapata Tamayo was born on May 15, 1967, in Santiago de Cuba. A bricklayer and plumber by profession, he became a member of the Alternative Republican Movement. After having been arrested in the street by agents of the Cuban political police on December 6, 2002, and accused of having supposedly committed the crime of disobedience, he was held in the maximum security prison of Guanajay in the capital of Havana. This crime category as well as other ones such as “pre-criminal behaviour” are regularly used by the Cuban government in its efforts to subdue the dissent and opposition.
After having been released on March 7, 2003, he was arrested again on March 20, when he joined the independent economist Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello and four other people in a hunger strike. He was taken to court on May 18, 2004, and sentenced to three years in prison. He served his sentence in the Guanajay prison in the province of Havana until January 15, 2005, when he was transferred to the Taco-Taco prison in the province of Pinar del Rio.
Orlando Zapata Tamayo died at the age of 42 at the Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras. He is the second Cuban dissident who died after a hunger strike in prison. The first was Pedro Luis Boitel, who starved himself to death at the beginning of the 1960’s. After Zapata Tamayo’s death, another citizen, activist Guillermo Fariñas, started a hunger strike, which eventually brought him on the threshold of death. With his act he not only wanted to continue Zapata Tamayo’s protest but also point to the impertinent conduct of the Cuban government, which, far from observing silence as a mark of respect for the dead, came with a series of insults against the martyr. Unfortunately, these were echoed in Uruguay by local labour unions and political organizations such as the PIT-CNT and the Communist Party, among others. However, fearing the imminent outcome of the new hunger strike, the government embarked on a series of negotiations with the Catholic Church, after which it publicly committed itself to freeing dozens of opponents and dissidents, with which it clearly and indisputably recognized the existence of political prisoners in Cuba.
The Cuban people and the whole international community could then witness the release and expatriation of prisoners, whom the government prohibited from meeting their relatives or visiting their homes or neighbourhoods on the way from prison to the airport.
Zapata Tamayo’s death is an example of stoicism and heroism. A black worker, whom the Cuban government and its foreign minions denied the right to claim dignity and respect for human rights, has become a milestone in the fight for freedom in Cuba. He deserves to be remembered and appreciated for having defended a universal cause: respect for the dignity of human beings and their right to exercise their freedoms.
In the dusk of the tight control of information on the island of Cuba, the Cuban government is now fighting against public demonstrations of recognition of Zapata Tamayo. It has employed a series of preventative measures against any activity commemorating the martyr’s death (seen as “disobedience” to authorities) including police cordons and secret state security agents, exertion of pressure on the opponents of the regime, dissidents, independent journalists and human rights activists, which was entrusted to the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, or detention of citizens. As the crime of “disobedience to authority” is a well known tool routinely employed by dictatorship regimes, Uruguay itself has plenty of experience with it from the authoritarian times.
Apart from showing our respect to Zapata Tamayo’s historical deed, we should also learn lessons from it and assume our obligations.
To show loyalty in the fight for freedom and respect for human rights is to come to their defence and promotion no matter where you are, and to free yourself from any sentimental hindrances and commitments the way that the prominent Uruguayan leftist intellectuals did after Zapata Tamayo’s death in their manifesto “No callar” (“Break the silence”). One of the passages reads:
“…A prisoner with extended sentence, a ‘confrontational’ man, whom the Cuban government labelled ‘common criminal’ (as people from the Southern Cone, who know what it is like to live under a dictatorship regime, we already know what it actually denotes) and who has been unknown until recently, has become the most efficient force challenging the established power. In fact, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a simple citizen with his own ideas, who was considered a prisoner of conscience by the Amnesty International (how many times did we, the Uruguayans, resorted to this organization in the time the dictatorship?), was so determined not to step back in the defence of his cause that he rather preferred to die of hunger. However, it was by no means an isolated incident: the baton has been picked up by another ‘confrontational’ man, who is now on the track to meet the same fate… “
“…Any efforts of other Latin American countries that would – far from interfering in the problems of others and violating the principle of non-intervention, contribute to a peaceful, democratic solution respecting human rights and managed centrally in Cuba, should be welcomed. To us, who have always felt brotherly compassion for the fate of the Cuban people, having breathed with them in the left, it seems that one of the first things that need to be done is to show our support to those who, armed with no other weapons than their own bodies, legitimately claim their rights, instead of silently watching how the Cuban government commits its disgusting atrocities…”
If positive forces in Latin America jointly dissociate themselves from the ideology and turn their attention to the humanitarian cause, recognizing the rights that their Cuban brothers and sisters are entitled to as human beings, we will be able to make a joint effort to promote the dignity of the people of Cuba, a country embracing all citizens without exception.
Jaime Mario Trobo is an Uruguayan Deputy. He is a member of the International Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Deputies. He is also a member of the Human Rights Commission of the Latin American Parliament.