Dissident's death will put Cuba on the spot
BY ANDRES OPPENHEIMER
Cuba's military dictatorship -- that's what it is, by any dictionary's
definition -- is in an awkward position following the death of political
prisoner Orlando Zapata after an 83-day hunger strike, and the decision
of four other jailed dissidents to stop eating to demand the release of
all prisoners of conscience.
Predictably, the United States and most European democracies issued
statements condemning Cuba's human rights abuses. And predictably, many
Latin American countries -- including some who claim to champion human
rights, such as Argentina and Mexico -- have remained silent, or made
But the big question is how Zapata's death will play where it really
counts -- inside Cuba. For the first three days after the death of the
Afro-Cuban bricklayer imprisoned since 2003, the regime of Gen. Raúl
Castro had not allowed the Cuban media to report it.
Finally, on Saturday, the muzzle was removed.
There are three scenarios about how Zapata's death may impact Cuba.
First Scenario: If the four imprisoned hunger strikers -- plus others
who have joined them outside -- continue their protest, there will be
growing international pressure on Cuba to free the 200 political
prisoners who languish in Cuban jails, or at the very least allow the
International Committee of the Red Cross and the Roman Catholic Church
to visit them.
Ironically, ICRC missions are allowed into the U.S. detainee camp of
Guantánamo to visit suspected terrorists, but they are not allowed into
Cuban jails holding prisoners jailed because of their opinions, or for
refusing to accept the regime's ``ideological rehabilitation'' programs
for prisoners of conscience.
Monsignor Emilio Aranguren, the bishop of Holguin, the Cuban province
where Zapata was imprisoned, told me in a telephone interview that he
requested in 2008 and 2009 to see the prisoner.
``His mother was a member of this diocese, and she had asked me to visit
her son,'' the bishop said. ``I made the request, but the only answer I
got was a verbal statement from one official, who said the prisoner was
under disciplinary conditions that did not make it possible to grant
such a meeting.''
Second Scenario: Zapata's death will unify Cuba's widely fragmented
pro-democracy movement, because it's the first known death of an
imprisoned dissident since student activist Pedro Luis Boitel died
during a hunger strike in prison in 1972.
Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, head of Cuba's Human Human Rights
Commission, told me in a telephone interview that there is a big
difference between Boitel and Zapata's deaths.
In the first case, the world didn't hear about it until ``months or
years later,'' he said. In Zapata's case, his death was reported
worldwide almost immediately because his case was being followed by
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and the news of his death
is beginning to trickle into Cuba through shortwave radio broadcasts
from abroad, he said.
``The human rights movement in Cuba has reacted as if we were one single
person, with one single voice, condemning Zapata's death,'' Sanchez said.
``There is a lot of discontent here, and this will lead to many more
expressions of discontent.''
Third Scenario: Zapata's death will soon be forgotten, like so many
other Cuban human rights violations in the past. Cuba's regime will
blame the tragedy on ``U.S. imperialism'' -- as it already has -- or the
CIA, and that will be it.
``Cuba's repressive apparatus will most likely prevent any major
protest,'' says Jose Miguel Vivanco of the Human Rights Watch advocacy
group. ``To get out of this situation, we would need effective
international pressure, and I don't see it anywhere.''
My opinion: Zapata's death will not lead to any internal upheaval. At
best, it will make it a bit harder for Latin American leaders to pose
smilingly for the cameras with a military dictator with fresh blood on
his hands, as they did at a Feb. 23 summit in Mexico, or as the
president of Brazil did Feb. 24 in Cuba at the very time Zapata was
dying in prison. And it may also make it a bit harder for Spain, the
current chair of the European Union, to go forward with its plans to
normalize Europe's relations with Cuba, as if that country were any
It is not. The least democratic-minded people everywhere can do is to
demand loudly and clearly that Cuba free all political prisoners -- the
same way we did when we were lashing out against right-wing military
Dissident's death will put Cuba on the spot - Andres Oppenheimer -
MiamiHerald.com (27 February 2010)