By MARC LACEY
Published: February 26, 2010
Friends and relatives of the Cuban activist Orlando Zapata Tamayo on
Wednesday with a condolence book during his wake in Havana. He had been
arrested in a mass roundup of dissidents in 2003. Mr. Zapata, 42,
stopped eating solid foods on Dec. 3 to protest his detention, and died
At least four prisoners who were arrested as part of a mass roundup of
dissidents in 2003 along with the dead dissident, Orlando Zapata Tamayo
— who stopped eating solid foods on Dec. 3 to protest his detention and
died on Feb. 23 — have begun their own hunger strikes, according to
human rights activists.
A fifth hunger striker, an outspoken psychologist and independent
journalist, has joined them, according to activists on the island.
Freedom House, an organization that ranks countries on their level of
freedom and considers Cuba "not free," called Mr. Zapata the first
prisoner in Cuba to die by starving himself since Pedro Luis Boitel, a
student leader and poet, did so in 1972.
The death of Mr. Zapata, who was not widely known in Cuba but was
labeled a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International, has forced
Cuban authorities to engage in damage control.
Cuba's critics place responsibility for Mr. Zapata's death on the Castro
government, with his mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, accusing government
officials of murder. Mr. Zapata, 42, had been denied water during his
hunger strike for an extended period while being held at a maximum
security prison in the eastern province of Camagüey, causing kidney
failure, Cuban human rights officials have said. He later developed
pneumonia at a Camagüey hospital before being sent to a prison hospital
in Havana, where he died, activists say.
"The only way he would die is if the order was to let him die," said one
former political prisoner, Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, adding that the
authorities had forced nutrients on him during his own hunger strike and
that they could have done the same for Mr. Zapata. "In my 22 years, I
had to do more than a dozen hunger strikes. The only form of protest you
had was a hunger strike."
President Raúl Castro said Wednesday that he regretted the death but
that it was the United States government, not Cuba, that bore
responsibility. Mr. Zapata was arrested in 2003 with 75 others whom Cuba
considered mercenaries working for Washington. Mr. Zapata was initially
charged with "disrespect," "public disorder" and "resistance," but he
later received decades of additional jail time for what the authorities
described as disruptive behavior behind bars.
"We took him to Cuba's best hospitals, and he died; we very much regret
it," Mr. Castro said during a joint appearance with President Luiz
Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, according to The Associated Press. Mr.
Castro added that the only torture being carried out in Cuba was that
performed by the American military at the base in Guantánamo Bay, where
detainees have conducted hunger strikes as well. "The day the United
States decides to live in peace with us, all these problems will end,"
Mr. Castro said.
Granma, the state newspaper, did not mention Mr. Zapata's death, but it
featured an article on Friday that deplored prison conditions in the
Mr. Zapata's declining health was widely known as his hunger strike
extended into its 11th week, and American officials said they raised the
issue with their Cuban counterparts at previously scheduled talks over
immigration held in Havana on Feb. 19, just four days before he died.
Hunger strikes, which are not uncommon in Cuban prisons, typically
prompt reprisals by the authorities, said Human Rights Watch, citing the
case of Yordis García Fournier, who stopped eating for more than a month
in 2008 and was placed in solitary confinement and prevented from
receiving family visits.
"Left with no other remedy for abuses, political prisoners routinely
undertake hunger strikes and other drastic measures to call attention to
their treatment," the organization said in a report released late last
year that criticized Raúl Castro as being as aggressive toward political
prisoners as his predecessor and brother, Fidel Castro.
Other recent hunger strikers include Alexander Santos Hernánez, a
longtime activist, who went on a 23-day hunger strike in 2006 to put
pressure on prison officials to grant him medical attention; and two
detained journalists, Victor Rolando Arroyo Carmona and Juan Adolfo
Fernández Sainez, who have stopped eating to protest prison conditions.
In 2009, after a long imprisonment, Jorge Luis García Pérez, who is
known as Antúnez, began a hunger strike in his home to call for an end
to abuses against political prisoners. While serving his 17-year
sentence, he had founded a political prisoner group named after Pedro
Luis Boitel, who undertook his fatal hunger strike while behind bars for
criticizing the Castro government.
The most frequent Cuban hunger striker may be Guillermo Fariñas, who
stopped eating for several months in 2006 to press for unrestricted
access to the Internet. At the time, it was reported that he had carried
out 20 hunger strikes since 1995.
Mr. da Silva was criticized back home in Brazil for not speaking out
against Cuba's treatment of Mr. Zapata during his talks with the
island's leadership, including a face-to-face meeting with Fidel Castro.
Mr. da Silva expressed sorrow for Mr. Zapata's death but also criticized
his use of a hunger strike, noting that he once started one, but
suspended it, while he was imprisoned as trade-union leader decades ago.
"I am against hunger strikes," he said.
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