Cuba: Political Prisoner Zapata Tamayo Dies From Hunger Strike

Cuban medical officials announced on Tuesday that  leading Cuban dissident and political prisoner, Orlando Zapata, died in a Havana hospital after 85 days of hunger strike. Sadly, Zapata Tamyo had been protesting prison conditions. Orlando Zapata was 42 years old and had being jailed since 2003 with a group of about 75 people. The human rights organization Amnesty International gave him the status of prisoner of conscience.

Zapata Tamayo was convicted in 2003 for political activities in opposition of the one-party communist rule of Cuba. The Cuban government denies holding any political prisoners, but independent sources put the number of political prisoners in Cuba’s jails at 200.

The death of the activist is likely to cast a shadow on a visit to the island, starting today, by Brazil’s President Lula. Cuban dissidents had written an open letter to President Lula ahead of his visit, the letter was released to the media. The Cuban dissidents were urging Lula to intercede with Raul Castro to help secure the release of Zapata.

Hector Palacios, one of the 75 political prisoners convicted in 2003, and who had met Zapata Tamayo in prison told the AFP that “people are indignant over Zapata’s death”, and that a national day of mourning was being considered. Hector Palacios, who has been released by the Cuban authorities for health reason, told the AFP that he was “crushed”. He added that Zapata “had no alternative but to decide on the hunger strike. The authorities took no pity on him, they just let him die”.

The death of Zapata is the first time an opponent of the communist government died during an hunger strike while in custody since the death of Pedro Luis Boitel, a poet, who fought against both Batista and Castro and died in 1972.

“They have assassinated Orlando Zapata. My son’s death has been a premeditated murder. They managed to do what they wanted and ended the life of a fighter for human rights,” Zapata’s mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, told El Nuevo Herald.

According to Amnesty International, restriction on freedom of expression, association and assembly persist in Cuba under the administration of Raul Castro. Freedom of expression remains limited with all mass media outlets still under state control. Journalists and political dissidents face harassment and intimidation by security officials.

In 2009 Cuba and the EU officially renewed ties after the EU imposed diplomatic sanctions following the arrest and sentencing of 75 prisoners of conscience in March 2003. The EU lifted the sanctions and initiated a dialogue with the authorities on various issues including human rights.

The death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who was among the 75 people arrested in 2003, will constitute a diplomatic set back for Cuba. It is unlikely that real political change will occurred in Cuba until the death of the Cuban Revolution founding father Fidel Castro. Even so Fidel Castro is sick and no longer in power he still casts, for better or worse, a huge shadow on the island.


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