Good friend and colleague Ernesto Hernández Busto wrote the following editorial for “La cuarta página” of El Pais , arguably the goto place for opeds. Regina once again did the translation for me:
February 26, 2010
Habaneros call a certain spot in Central Park the “Hot Corner”: It’s where heated discussions about baseball take place. Some people think it’s the only space for free discussion that still survives on the island, where ardent polemicists don’t stop talking about sports.
This was the spot were they picked up Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a member of the Alternative Republican Movement (a small dissident group, with a peaceful orientation, founded in 2002), for complaining about “the thing that was bad.” The same day, December 6, 2002, two agents from the political police detained him and some hours later charged him with disrespect, public disorder and disobedience.
Zapata Tamayo was confined for several months in the maximum security prison of Guanajay, on the outskirts of Havana, from which he was released on conditional liberty March 7, 2003.
Not even his dissident associates can explain how, with his legal status, this modest brick-layer and plumber, of black race, found the bravery to participate that same month in a fast, together with Martha Beatriz Roque and four activists, to denounce the situation of Oscar Elías Biscet and other political prisoners. He could have refused to participate in the fast using his legal status as an excuse. But he acted by conviction, and the so-called Black Spring thus claimed a new victim.
Zapata was charged on May 18, 2004, and condemned to three years in prison. He then began a long ordeal, a story that I would like to have the luxury of telling in detail, and which would read like an exciting film (of the “prison” sub-genre), if it weren’t for the fact that Hollywood almost always prefers scripts with a happy ending.
Let’s listen first to the protagonist, born on May 15, 1967, the year officially baptized “Heroic Vietnam,” in Banes, a village in the east of the island where just now they have buried him. Banes was, of course, the town where Fulgencio Batista was born, and the house of the richest farmer in the region is now the municipal seat of the Communist Party.
His mother, Reina, someone of great willpower and limited education; Rogelio, an absent father; a step-father who assumed his upbringing, a large family (he was the second of five brothers): These are a few details of the atmosphere that surrounded his difficult childhood. As a brick-layer, Zapata Tamayo installed himself in Havana, and there he felt the suffering of being an illegal, marginal immigrant, who left the eastern provinces to try to survive in the capital.
Perhaps all this had something to do with his decision to become part of the opposition, in a country where dissidents are automatically considered social pests.
There are not many photos of Zapata Tamayo: one in black and white, the size of a license; another, collectively, of the fast that cost him his entry into prison, where he is not even looking at the camera. His ordeal in the prisons of the Cuban penitentiary system is, however, very well documented and is worth the trouble of reviewing so that it will serve as an illustration of a world of horrors, about which the principal press media barely speak.
The first thing that draws attention is the number of prisoners arrested in those seven years. This is “explained” (and here the euphemism borders on outrage) with the argument that Zapata was a “problem” prisoner, contentious, rebellious. (It’s no coincidence that the word for a reckless bigmouth in Cuban slang is “arrested.”) Although all his friends in the dissidence agree that he was someone very likeable, smiling and of few words, in prison Zapata demonstrated an unusual valor and showed himself to be disobedient, animated by the conviction of those stubborn ones who had decided to not allow the authorities to “step on them” or “bring them down.”
His behavior had a psychology very similar to those communists of the aborted Revolution of the ‘30s against Machado, or to the members of the Revolutionary Directorate in Havana of the ‘50s (although it’s worth pointing out, as Enrique del Risco and Luis Manuel Garcia have done, the difference between that successful, three-week hunger strike led by Julio Antonio Mella, the communist leader in December 1925, and the 85 days of Zapata’s hunger strike, which ended in that shocking cadaver where you could see the marks of the batons used by the police and the prison wardens).
Let’s get back to the story, which in this case is not getting back to a sheep.
[Translator’s note: This is a play on words of a Spanish idiom, which involves the word “sheep” and means “Let’s get back to what we were talking about.”]
The three year prison-sentence that Zapata Tamayo received in the Black Spring seemed to be slight compared to the penalties of his companions. But political passion and a calling that some defined as “stoic” flowed into later acts of prison protest, and increased his penalty to 36 years.
He first began his sentence in the Guanajay penitentiary. In April 2004, he quarreled with the prison director, demanding repayment of some funds seized during a cell search. The guards handcuffed him and beat him, causing multiple injuries to his face and teeth.
A little later, in front of his mother, the prison director, the Ministry of the Interior, Colonel Wilfredo Velázquez Domínguez, again beat the prisoner, who was confined in the punishment cell known as “The Tower.”
On January 15, 2005, Zapata was transferred to the Taco-Taco prison, in Pinar del Rio province, where he went on his first hunger strike.
By this date, a French deputy, Thierry Mariani, who had been named the “godfather” of the Cuban prisoner through the international mechanisms of solidarity, addressed Jacques Chirac, President of the French Republic, Michel Barnier, the Foreign Minister of France, and René Mujica, in charge of business in the Cuban Embassy in Paris, to express his concern over Zapata’s health. It was the first in a long series of public communications about this shocking case. None of them had any effect.
Beginning in 2005, Zapata started behaving like a plantado, a hold-out, one of those prisoners who refused to dress as a common prisoner and demanded to be treated like a political prisoner, again in the tradition of Mario Chanes de Armas and so many others who converted a moral action into a movement of prison protest. This cost him the second of the seven trials to which he was subjected in life. In none of them did they permit the presence of family members during the oral testimony, nor did he have the right to a real defense.
A tedious description of the humiliations and horrors of this so-called “re-education system” that ended up claiming this dissident’s life would be a little less than interminable. But I don’t want to skimp on the number of some of the miserable ones—and which involve a story full of miserable people.
All the times Zapata was transferred from prison, the authorities did not even take the trouble to advise his mother. She would find out when she arrived, after traveling with difficulty to the prisons, carrying for her son bags of food, which on more than one occasion were confiscated and which almost cost her a denunciation for “improper appropriation.” Crackers, powdered milk, things like that….In July 2007, when she was returning to Holguín after the visit in Camagüey, Reina had a road accident. Two ribs damaged a lung, and she had to have an emergency operation.
Now in the prison in Holguín, Zapata Tamayo became the preferred victim of a kind of human breed or a tropical version of the urkas of the Stalinist gulags: hired prison-assassins who, in exchange for visits, housing and reduced sentences, did the dirty work of the jailers, and were assigned to strike and intimidate the political prisoners.
The most important beating that Zapata suffered took place on March 21, 2008. A little later, on July 26, 2008, two common prisoners, one from Mayarí, and another called Roberto González, alias “El Potrico,” (the “Little Colt”) brought 10 buckets of water to his cell and beat him with a broomstick. As payment for the “accident,” the soldiers let “El Potrico” have a matrimonial visit of 72 hours.
The last year of his life was the worst. On Friday, May 15, 2009, accused of “disrespect and disorder in penitentiary establishments,” they added 10 years to the already-increased penalty.
In October 2009, several guards in the provincial prison of Holguín beat him again and gave him a strong kick in the head. This blow ended up causing an internal swelling, and he had to be operated on.
On December 3, 2009, after they confiscated the only food he had decided to eat in captivity, Zapata began a new hunger strike in the Kilo 8 prison of Camagüey, demanding “the same privileges that Fulgencio Batista gave to Fidel Castro when he was a prisoner in the Modelo fortress.”
In solitary confinement, the authorities refused him water for 18 days, which caused renal failure.
In the middle of February 2010, while he was in agony after more than 70 days of not eating, he was transferred to the hospital of the Combinado del Este Prison in Havana, where, according to what several ex-prisoners have stated, they did not have the conditions for adequate treatment.
Zapata Tamayo passed away on February 23, after 15 hours in the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital, where he had been taken the previous night, when his death was imminent. He was brought there to die, and not even in this circumstance could the political police deprive themselves of contempt. According to his mother, an official joked: “I have good news and bad news: the good news is that he’s now in the Ameijeiras Hospital; the bad news is that he’s dying.”
He was not invincible, the kind of illustrious prisoner the press likes to talk about. His story is not one of the libertarian who sees his ideals fulfilled. But this man who is now buried in the cemetery of La Güira represents something superior on a moral scale, something that surely approaches martyrdom. He was someone who was unyielding.
Ernesto Hernández Busto
*A first version of this article, without links and reduced by the inevitable 1300 words of the section “The fourth page,” was published today in El País.