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A bricklayer has electrified the dissident community and dimmed prospects of changing international Cuba policies.
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.