"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” -Joseph Goebbels, Propaganda Minister, Nazi Germany
There is a campaign underway by the Cuban dictatorship, its agents of influence and sympathizers to cover up its brutal treatment and murder of Orlando Zapata Tamayo while creating a false biography of this human rights defender to diminish his moral stature. The main reason that the world knows about the torture all too common in Cuban prisons that led to Orlando Zapata to go on hunger strike and the continued mistreatment that contributed to his death is because of his mother Reina Luisa Tamayo Danger. She is now the target of a campaign of defamation, character assassination abroad and physical violence perpetrated against her by agents of the Cuban regime. Meanwhile the press has apparently lost interest in the story leaving Reina to the mercy of Cuban state security.
Sloppy reporting overlooked prior victims
The media got one important element of the story wrong from the beginning when it made the claim that the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo was the first such incident since Pedro Luis Boitel who died on May 25, 1972. First, since 1959 the International Red Cross has only been able to obtain access to examine Cuban prisons only once over a small window of time in 1989 out of over a half century of the current regime in power nor are the numbers of deaths on hunger strike accounted for by the Cuban regime. Amnesty International has not been able to visit Cuba since 1990.
Secondly, as in the case of Orlando Zapata Tamayo the world knows about Pedro Luis Boitel because his mother, Clara Abrahante Boitel, fought to save her son and make known the atrocities committed against Pedro Luis regardless of the threats visited upon her. However in addition to Pedro Luis Boitel and Orlando Zapata Tamayo the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has documented additional Cuban political prisoners who have died on hunger strike both before and after Pedro Luis Boitel:
- Roberto López Chávez, 25 years old, died on December 11, 1966 in Isla de Pinos prison on hunger strike without medical assistance. Armando Valladares, in his prison memoir, Against All Hope described the circumstances surrounding his death: “When Roberto López Chávez, went on a hunger strike to protest the abuses in the prison, the guards withheld water from him until he became delirious, twisting on the floor and begging for something to drink. [...] He died the next day.”
- Carmelo Cuadra Hernández, died in La Cabaña prison in April of 1969 on hunger strike, after suffering mistreatment and torture over eight and a half months, without receiving medical care and was the third political prisoner that has died on a hunger strike.
- Olegario Charlot Pileta, died in the infamous "Escaleras" (staircase) of the Boniato prison, in of January 1973 during a hunger strike, without medical assistance and is described in documents as a “black youth.”
- Enrique García Cuevas died on a hunger strike, without receiving medical care, in cell No. 4 of the new Provincial Jail of Santa Clara, on June 24, 1973.
Two of the four outlined above died on hunger strikes after Pedro Luis Boitel and there are partial estimates that place the number identified to have died while on hunger strike at twelve including both Boitel and Zapata. Since Pedro Luis Boitel died there are partial lists of six political prisoners dead on hunger strikes between May 25, 1972 and February 23, 2010. This does not mean that there is a conspiracy afoot but human error product of deadlines combined with staff and budget cutbacks in newspapers.
Orlando Zapata Tamayo photographed with prominent leaders of the opposition in 2003
Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a Prisoner of Conscience
Orlando Zapata Tamayo was recognized as an Amnesty International (AI) prisoner of conscience on January 29, 2004 a designation given only to nonviolent activists after careful examination.
The claim that Orlando Zapata Tamayo was a violent criminal in prison for a violent crime is a lie manufactured by the Cuban regime. Furthermore the claim that “AI has never mentioned the alleged political activities that landed Zapata in prison” is untrue. On January 29, 2004 Amnesty International outlined Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s past arrests:
“He has been arrested several times in the past. For example he was temporarily detained on 3 July 2002 and 28 October 2002. In November 2002 after taking part in a workshop on human rights in the central Havana park, José Martí, he and eight other government opponents were reportedly arrested and later released. He was also arrested on 6 December 2002 along with Oscar Elías Biscet, but was released on 8 March 2003. Most recently, he was arrested on the morning of 20 March 2003 whilst taking part in a hunger strike at the Fundación Jesús Yánez Pelletier, Jesús Yánez Pelletier Foundation, in Havana, to demand the release of Oscar Biscet and other political prisoners.”
Orlando Zapata Tamayo appeared photographed in the Cuban government’s own publication Los Disidentes, in photos prior to his 2003 arrest and was then recognized by Cuban officials as a dissident. The Spanish publication El Mundo carried a photo the day after the Cuban regime announced the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo with prominent Cuban dissidents. Even in death Orlando continues to be a victim of regime attacks libeling his good name.
The aim of Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s hunger strike
No one disputes that Orlando Zapata Tamayo died on a hunger strike. However, the Cuban regime claims that Orlando Zapata Tamayo had demanded: “a television, a personal kitchen, and a cell phone to call his family in order to end his hunger strike and regime sympathizers without citing the source repeat the claim.” Cuban political prisoner Abel Lopez Perez transferred to the same prison in Camaguey as Orlando Zapata Tamayo on December 3, 2009 and briefly saw him and heard from other prisoners “that a few days before being taken away, Zapata stood up and shouted, ‘People, don’t let yourselves be lied to. Don’t believe anything that they tell you. I’m not demanding a kitchen or any of the things they took away from me. I’m demanding an improvement of treatment for all prisoners, and so you all know, I am going to die for it.’”
When weighing the claims of the Cuban regime and a former Cuban political prisoner one should look at Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s background. This is a man who was arrested while on a hunger strike protesting the imprisonment of other prisoners of conscience who had been arrested with him in a sit-in in December of 2002 just days after he himself was released from prison in March of 2003. This fact, along with the rest of Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s trajectory as an activist would give more weight to Abel Lopez’s version of events.
Basis for the claim that Orlando Zapata Tamayo was murdered
Both Abel Lopez Perez and Reina Luisa Tamayo charge that Cuban prison officials denied Orlando Zapata Tamayo water in an effort to break him. Reina Luisa Tamayo in an interview with Yoani Sanchez, hours after her son’s death denounced that officials had denied him water. Abel Lopez corroborates the charge describing what went on: “Before Zapata was checked into the hospital, he was regularly taking some vitamins. He was in a weak state of health. A military chief known as ‘Gordo’, who was the one responsible for ordering all of Zapata’s things to be taken out of the cell and to stop giving him water, also took his bottle of vitamins and poured all the pills down a drain. He told him, ‘Those who are in protest here don’t drink vitamins. I think those are pills sent to you by the Yankees so you can continue your hunger strike.’ Those were the exact words said to him, I verified them. His vitamins were taken away, as were any other medications. And they stopped giving him water for a while.” This type of practice was also documented in the 1966 death of Roberto López Chávez. Denying water to a man on a water only hunger strike is cruel treatment and most likely contributed to his death.
Zapata's mother holds up Orlando's blood stained shirt a product of a beating by prison guards
Finally, the campaign to equate engaging in a hunger strike with suicide is at best mistaken.
Nonviolence expert, Michael Nagler in an Introduction to Nonviolence filmed at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 2006 offered the following analysis on hunger strikes within a nonviolent context:
"This is not a case of suicide. You are not killing yourself. You are risking death. What you are doing is putting your life into the hands of another person." ... "You are not killing yourself but you are saying to the person that your behavior is so unacceptable that if you continue it its going to kill me. It is an extreme case of taking on the suffering that is in a situation." ...This is different from a threat because what you are saying to the person is "I am going to exhibit to you mirror back to you the ultimate consequences of what you are doing." ... "This is an act of truth. You are killing us - you are killing our people and I'm going to show you that you are doing it to awaken your conscience."...Thats why you have to be carrying on a conversation on a nonverbal level.
Orlando Zapata Tamayo had been beaten and tortured on more than one occasion by prison guards and state security along with other prisoners. His body was scarred and his health in decline. For example AI reported that, on "October 20, 2003 [Orlando Zapata] was dragged along the floor of Combinado del Este Prison by prison officials after requesting medical attention, leaving his back full of lacerations." The case of Ariel Sigler Amaya is instructive. He had to threaten a hunger strike, although already emaciated and crippled, to obtain medical treatment to save his life. The hunger strike was not an act of suicide but rather self defense within the arsenal of nonviolent weapons.
Ariel Sigler Amaya (Physical deterioration while not on hunger strike)
Attacking Amnesty International and 75 Cuban Prisoners of Conscience
Apologists of the dictatorship in their attack on AI and 75 Cuban prisoners of conscience point to an Amnesty International 2008 report and its observation that: “because [some of the 75] received funds and/or materials from the United States government in order to engage in activities the authorities perceived as subversive and damaging to Cuba” that this is a contradiction describing it as a “serious crime.” But they fail to reproduce the quote in its entirety leaving out that “activities included publishing articles or giving interviews to US-funded media, communicating with international human rights organizations and having contact with entities or individuals viewed to be hostile.”
There are international standards that indicate what a legitimate claim of treason is and what is illegitimate and the charges made against the 75 fall far short. At a 1995 international conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, a set of principles that provide guidance regarding permissible justifications for restricting rights known today as the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information was drafted. These principles invoke legitimate reasons to invoke national security interests which are: "protecting a country's existence or its territorial integrity against the use or threat of force, or its capacity to respond to the threat or use of force, whether from an external source, such as a military threat, or an internal source, such as incitement to violent overthrow of the government."
The Johannesburg Principles also outline illegitimate justifications for invoking national security interests which are: "protecting the government from embarrassment or exposure of wrongdoing, or to entrench a particular ideology, or to conceal information about the functioning of its public institutions, or to suppress industrial action."
Finally the Johannesburg Principles specify that certain types of expression should always be protected, including criticizing or insulting the government and its symbols; advocating nonviolent change of the government or policies of the government; and communicating human rights information to the outside world. Human Rights Watch in their 1999 report Cuba's Repressive Machinery and in their 2009 report New Castro, Same Cuba find that Cuba's state security laws violate these principles, illegitimately restricting fundamental rights both in the phrasing of the laws themselves and in their application against nonviolent dissidents.
The Cuban government's attack on foreign funding by either government or non-governmental funding of domestic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is not unique the Russians and Venezuelans are passing or trying to pass laws to cut off outside funding streams to civil society. While in the Cuban case dissenting from the official government line means in most cases losing your job and in some cases also being kicked out of your home it is easy to see that the policy is to only permit the existence of pro-government voices. Another example, similar to Cuba, is Burma where the opposition faces brutal repression and the cutting off of domestic resources and thus needs to look for support from abroad.
Regimes, like the ones in Cuba and Burma, are desperate to suffocate all voices of dissent by demonizing, imprisoning, exiling, or killing them. Amnesty International's identification of prisoners of conscience is an important indicator of the presence or absence of basic freedoms in a country. The Johannesburg Principles exposes regimes, that hide behind the national security facade to impose a climate of fear, for what they are brutal dictatorships that systematically violate the human rights of their own citizens.
There is a big chasm between an individual advocating the violent overthrow of a government and using the force of arms to lash out against representatives of those in power and individuals exercising their fundamental human rights to achieve nonviolent change. The first is a political prisoner and the second is a prisoner of conscience.
The Campaign to Destroy Reina Luisa Tamayo
The murder of Orlando Zapata Tamayo calls for justice. However, right now Reina Luisa Tamayo, the mother of Orlando Zapata Tamayo faces a campaign to destroy her both physically and psychologically carried out by a ruthless dictatorship with an international reach. Regime officials have physically assaulted and terrorized her when she has tried to visit Zapata’s grave and attend Mass. Her remaining children and grandchildren are harassed and mistreated.
At the same time because of the outcry over Orlando Zapata’s death and brutal attacks on the Ladies in White a large number of prisoners of conscience, along with their families, have been sent into exile but there are a group of prisoners of conscience who have rejected exile in Europe declaring that they wish to live free in Cuba. They are still in prison despite an agreement reached with the Ladies in White by the regime through mediation with the Cuban Catholic Church that said they would be free by November 7, 2010. Please do not allow ideology to blind you to the great injustices being committed in Cuba and speak up for Reina Luisa Tamayo and these prisoners of conscience seeking to remain in the island.