HAVANA, Cuba — Orlando Zapata Tamayo wasn’t a prominent voice in Cuba’s small opposition movement. He wasn’t one of the dissident activists whom foreign reporters often call for quotes, and he didn’t have a blog or an academic degree.
But when the 42-year-old bricklayer died Feb. 23 after an 85-day hunger strike in prison, he made a powerful protest statement that has electrified the island’s fragmented dissident community and brought a flood of fresh criticism to Cuba’s human rights record.
For the Cuban government, Zapata’s death has been a public relations disaster, particularly in Europe, where Spanish newspapers have devoted extensive coverage to the story. Spain’s influential daily El Pais published nearly 20 articles and editorials on Zapata’s death in the six days following his death, and several leading U.S. papers have also condemned the Castro government.
The cascade of negative press comes at a particularly bad time for Havana, as Spain’s socialist government has been pushing to change the European Union’s common position on Cuba, which calls for human rights improvements as a condition for better relations. Now, analysts say the uproar in Europe over Zapata’s death will make changes to Cuba-EU relations unlikely.
The episode has also further dimmed the prospects of changes to U.S policy at a time when tensions were already high following the Dec. 3 arrest of a U.S. contractor, Alan Gross, working on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The 60-year-old Maryland resident was arrested for distributing illegal satellite equipment on the island and is being held in a maximum-security prison, though he has not been formally charged.
With Gross’ arrest, and now Zapata’s death, the new effort in Congress to lift the ban on American travel to Cuba and ease restrictions on food sales to the island will also likely face intensified opposition.
Even Rep. Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who has been a leading voice for Cuba policy reform in Congress, told the Miami Herald that the Castro government "should have intervened earlier to prevent this tragedy,” adding “his death is on their conscience.”
Cuba has been slow to respond to the criticism, though in recent days, it has increasingly challenged the version of events — and the version of Zapata’s character — put forth by dissident activists and foreign editorials.
On Monday evening, Cuban state television broadcast a lengthy report that featured interviews with several doctors who treated Zapata, detailing the medical care he received and the health problems that ensued from his staunch refusal to eat. The report was the first mention of Zapata on Cuban television since his death, and for many ordinary Cubans, it was likely to be the first time they’d ever heard of him.
The television report also included what appeared to be secretly taped footage of Zapata’s mother, Reina Tamayo, who has accused the Cuban government of “murdering” her son. In the footage, she appears in meetings with Zapata’s doctors, thanking them effusively for their care, while the confidentiality of the meeting vanishes through a hidden lens filming from somewhere inside the doctor’s desk.
“Our relations with his family were cordial,” one of Zapata’s physicians says in the report, which goes on to use more secretly taped recordings to allege that anti-Castro groups in Miami had plotted to manipulate Zapata’s hunger strike for political gain, showing little concern for his health.
Cuba’s communist party newspaper Granma also tried to undercut Zapata’s hallowed image over the weekend with an article describing him as a “common criminal” who had been manipulated by anti-Castro “mercenaries” in the service of U.S. foreign policy. It listed several prior criminal convictions on Zapata’s record, including an assault conviction in 2000 after he fractured another man’s skull with a machete.
Still, it was unclear why Cuban authorities — who often complain of unfair coverage in the foreign press — had allowed so much time to pass before providing information about Zapata that would contrast with what his supporters were saying. Their efforts at damage control are probably too late to alter the heroic image of Zapata that was erected by Cuban dissidents in the days following his death.
They have depicted him as a humble, courageous everyman who faced numerous beatings and abuses in prison, ultimately turning to the hunger strike as a last-resort form of protest. His refusal to wear a uniform and frequent clashes with prison guards stretched a three-year prison term — for crimes that included “resistance” and “disrespecting authority”— into a 25-year sentence.
He was considered a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International — one of about 200 political prisoners currently held in Cuban jails, according to rights activists and Western governments.
The island’s dissident community, meanwhile, has been galvanized by Zapata’s death. Scattered groups of bloggers, reformers, human rights activists, hardliners and others say their differences have been smoothed over with Zapata’s emergence as a martyr.
“It’s had a catalyzing effect,” said human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez. “We’ve all speaking with one voice.” Sanchez said several dissidents have launched their own hunger strikes since Zapata’s death, and that symbolic acts of protest would continue from opposition members inside and outside prison. What’s not clear is how many ordinary Cubans will notice.