The Life of Political Prisoners in Cuba

He was meant to be just another prisoner who happened to die – after all, it is a well-known fact that these things happen. The death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, however, drove another wedge into the crumbling wall of the Cuban regime. And it seems that the wedge has gone in quite deep this time.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo died on February 23rd at one o’clock in the morning, while under police surveillance. He died after being on a hunger strike for 83 days which he undertook as a protest against the inhuman conditions of Cuban prisons. He died because the Cuban government ignored his case and his demands, even though he did not want that much: access to health care, a permission to receive food packages from home, and more frequent family visits than only once in every three months. Since his demands were turned down, Zapata Tamayo decided to go on a hunger strike. The prison guards were quick to respond – and refused him water. Consequently, kidney failure set in, followed by a total body collapse and pneumonia triggered by him being kept in a cold environment for too long.  Eventually, death was inevitable. In response, the Cuban government issued a statement saying that although his death was regrettable, they would not allow themselves to be blackmailed by a hunger striker. Zapata was far from being an opposition hell-raiser, he disliked being photographed and did not seek out popularity. He was sentenced to 36 years in prison for civil disobedience and defying the state. What this meant in fact was that he joined a march in support of solidarity with political prisoners, who had been sentenced mostly for illegal emigration (the so calledbalseros who attempt to leave the country on make-shift floats with the aim of getting to Mexico or the USA), delivering information to the enemy (publishing articles in foreign media), and defaming state symbols (ridiculing Fidel Castro).

In 2008, though, when Raúl Castro officially took up power, the system of repressions changed several times. At first it seemed that dissent in Havana, which was more exposed to the attention of diplomats and foreign journalists, might be left in relative peace, such activities in the east of Cuba suffered from increased oppression by the regime. However, after the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the government stamped out and blocked all opposition activities. Although until recently the Damas de Blanco – a group of wives, mothers and daughters of political prisoners – could carry out their quiet marches through Havana, in March their gatherings were repeatedly dispersed by the police. Similarly, the secret police has continued to prevent the increasingly influential and numerous bloggers’ community from gathering, taking part in marches in support of human rights or the secret police just simply try to stop members of the community from getting to Havana. The most recent tactics have included more frequent arrests, threats or the so called acts of repudiation, during which families of political prisoners are bullied by a pro-government mob.

According to Cuban law anyone can be sent to prison at any time. Cuba is one of the few countries whose Constitution directly establishes censorship. Article 53 of the Constitution of Cuba asserts: “Freedom of speech and freedom of press must abide by the rules of a socialist state.” In addition, Article 62 says: “The recognized freedoms cannot be used against the Constitution and laws of the country or against the socialist state and the Cuban people who are building socialism and communism.” Besides, it is impossible to escape the thoroughly organized system comprised of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution set up in every block, the secret police, rapid deployment brigades and various army committees. Recently the government has put to practice more often a preventive law about people who are a danger to society. Based on this law anybody who could be potential danger to the society sometime in the future can be arrested and detained. The law does not specify how dangerous the person would have to be, nor does it delineate what society is meant or what the term “in the future” really stands for.

It is estimated that in the 50 years that Fidel Castro was in power, Cuban prisons were filled with hundreds of political prisoners who served sentences ranging between 10 to 30 years for committing ‘serious’ crimes such as believing in God, homosexuality, or publicly voiced disagreement with the regime. At present there are estimated to be over 200 political prisoners being held in prisons, 53 of which are prisoners of consciousness as defined by Amnesty International, which leaves no doubt that these were sentenced to disproportionate sentences in fabricated trials. These are also the most glaring cases, whose situation often gets reported on by European and American media and their release is a condition that the European Union sets in exchange for providing development aid and the USA when discussing improvement in diplomatic relations. The Cuban government acts as if it does not understand why exactly these prisoners and claims that the only prisoners of consciousness on the whole island are the ones being held at the American base in Guantanamo. While the US pressure (not only in the form of an embargo) does not seem to bring the desired effects, Spain and Vatican seem to have been more successful in their negotiations in the last twenty years. The Spanish strategy of maintaining an open dialogue with the Cuban government and the exchange of political prisoners in return for economic investment into tourism seems to be more fruitful. It raises a question, however, whether the Cuban government might start to imprison more opposition members just to have enough to exchange. While not long after Raúl Castro took over power Spain succeeded in negotiating a release out of prison of four most gravely ill political prisoners, three other opposition activists – journalists were jailed last year.

Uncertainty and controversy about the Cuban prisoners are rife not only in Cuba, but have served as a useful tool of propaganda. Their numbers are not clear, officially they do not exist at all or they are presented as henchmen of imperialism trying to subvert the Revolution. There is uncertainty as to who still counts a political prisoner and who should not. Is a person who tries to leave Cuba on a raft, is caught by a coastal control and gets a prison sentence of 15 years really a political prisoner? Or are political prisoners strictly speaking only those who were convicted for their political activities? Why do they want to become martyrs for democracy? On whose payroll are they? Are they paid at all? What are their goals?

United Forces of the Opposition

It is clear already that the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo is a milestone for contemporary Cubans, which divides them into those “before Orlando” and “after Orlando”. This is a turning point crucial not only for the Cuban opposition, which has started to act more as one body after almost fifty years, but also for the regime itself. The Cuban leadership is not only having to face increased pressure from the international community to release political prisoners while also losing more of its ideological backers in the European Union, but above all, it will have to face the dissent’s united forces, which the regime quite successfully managed to shatter. As their response to Zapata’s death, 11 more opposition activists went on a protest hunger strike. One of those who joined the hunger strike is Víctor Rolando Arroyo Carmona, an independent journalist living in the province Pinar del Río who was sentences to 26 years in prison during a police crackdown on the opposition (The Cuban Black Spring); or Guillermo Fariñas who has refused both solid food and even water.

The hunger strikers list includes one of the youngest political prisoners: Darsí Ferrer. Darsí is doctor and independent journalist, who is well known for his criticisms of the Cuban double-standard health care system (the quality of the one that is free of charge and available to ordinary Cubans is strikingly poorer than the one offered to those with hard currency at their disposal and tourists). His case illustrates a new tactics that the regime has started to employ against the opposition. Darsí Ferrer was ‘supposedly’ detained because he bought two sacks of cement on a black market to repair his house after the hurricane Ike destroyed it. Although to get anything on a black market is illegal in Cuba, it works. Everybody uses it, including even those who do not have much to offer there. Since July 22, 2009, Darsí has been held imprisoned without any trial. The hunger strike is his expression of solidarity with the dead “co-fighter”. But it is even more – it is his latest means for trying to force the repressive system to grant him a proper trial and health care that has so far been denied to him.

Apart from the fact that each of the hunger strikers adds to their common demands for release of the 26 most gravely ill political prisoners their own cause (e.g. being denied time outside in the fresh air, being denied family visits, a ban on receiving packages from home, being denied health care, etc.), Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death has also caused a change in the attitude among the members of the opposition. They have united after a relatively long time so that the Cuban government would not gloss over the case just with quiet throat-clearing. Statements issued by the opposition for foreign media are common workings of independent journalists, opposition activists and “elite” dissidents, all of whom had been having difficulty for some time until then standing together. And the fact that the statements are put together by more people, each of whom constructively pushes forward their own thoughts, adds a new and surprisingly refreshing touch to the media releases. Several prisoners on parole came up with the idea that there should be a referendum in Cuba, which would solve the situation of political prisoners. There would be three options to vote on. The first one would call for the 26 most ill prisoners to be released. The second option would guarantee a release of all 203 political prisoners, and the third alternative would order that all prisoners stay in prison. The chance of the government hearing this proposal is, of course, almost nil. Smart marketing moves of this nature, though, make sure that political prisoners and the opposition as such are repeatedly brought to the attention in the world media.

It is exactly these meaningful and well-organized steps that have put members of the repressive Cuban regime on edge more than anything else. The latest big initiative, which was called the Varela Project and which was aimed at the public, startled the Cuban government in 2003. It based on Article 88 of the Cuban constitution, which grants a change in laws provided that a petition of over 10, 000 signatures has been submitted. The Varela Project called for a more democratic running of home affairs in the country. The petition was signed by 11020 ordinary, and largely otherwise politically uninterested Cubans. A reaction of the government to the initiative was as clear as day when numerous arrests of members of the opposition and the initiative’s organizers soon followed. In March of the same year 75 dissidents were arrested during a few days and sentenced to the average of 18 years in prison. The remaining 54 of these make up almost all of the prisoners of consciousness. However, over the last few years, this number has been growing and that other massive arrests of the opposition members are likely to happen.

It might be because prisoners of consciousness are to the Cuba leadership more than just imperialism mercenaries and “worms”. They are also good political bait, who comes in handy when business negotiations are to take place. The Spanish are in the lead in this since they accepted rules of this game, the result of which was that their massive financial investment arrived in exchange for four political prisoners who were dying and were released only under the condition that they would be flown directly to Spain. What this means in practice is that with such attitude, all Cubans are basically government’s hostages.

In the same vein, the situation of political prisoners is equally hard for them as it is for their families. While a group of families of the 75 political prisoners can rely on relatively regular humanitarian aid from abroad, families of the remaining 130 prisoners, who are difficult to identify, struggle to survive with being labeled as scum and subverts of the revolution. This stigma practically means that members of the immediate family lose their jobs and, as a “natural” consequence of it, their ration books, which enable Cubans to purchase basic foodstuffs at a subsidized price. Foodstuffs can be otherwise bought either on a black market, which is a criminal act, or with convertible pesos, which are not used to pay regular salaries (and therefore are only acquirable through a criminal act as well). Not only do these often large families try to make a living out of irregular state charity hand-outs and out of their relatives’ support, they also have to search for food and medicine to send to their sick loved one (son, father, brother, etc.) that is a political prisoner. This uneasy task, though, have resulted in one unexpected outcome: the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco), which gathers once a week to march peacefully through Havana, with gladiolas in their hands and dressed in white. With their quiet gesture, they demand release of their dear ones. And they make representatives of the repressive governmental system more nervous. A week of unrest, which took place late March and during which the women marched every day from the Church of St. Rita, ended with the group being forcefully dispersed. This incident was witnessed by a number of European diplomats and by an unusually high number of foreign journalists.

Video and photograph releases of a crowd bullying a group of 54 defenseless women was another blow to a picture that was slowly being painted of a Cuba that was being reformed, and to which the rest of the world applauded excitedly: improving diplomatic relations, signing UN documents, ensuring basic civic and political rights, doing away with political sanctions on the part of the European, renewing a dialogue with Washington and the likes … and then one person dies. And there are over 200 political prisoners who are left with no other means than just struggle for survival and dignity and time to wait. To wait until the Revolution – this empty notion with deadly consequences for several generations of Cubans – is at its end.

Pavla Holcova is a free lance journalist and the head of People in Need’s Cuba section in Prague.

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