By PAUL HAVEN, Associated Press Feb. 24, 2010
HAVANA – Cuban President Raul Castro issued an unprecedented statement of
regret on Wednesday over the death of a jailed dissident after a lengthy
hunger strike that has sparked condemnation in Washington and in European
The Cuban leader blamed the United States for the death of Orlando Zapata
Tamayo, but did not explain how Washington was responsible.
"Raul Castro laments the death of Cuban prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo,
who died after conducting a hunger strike," the Foreign Ministry said in a
statement Wednesday, adding that any reports that the man was tortured or
mistreated in jail were false. Zapata Tamayo launched the hunger strike to
protest what he said were poor prison conditions on the island.
"There are no torture victims, there have not been any torture victims nor
have there been any executions," the ministry quoted Castro as saying
during meeting with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that was
closed to media on the island.
"That sort of thing happens at the base at Guantanamo," he added,
referring to the U.S. military base in eastern Cuba used to jail terror
Cuban officials almost never comment on dissident activity, which they
view as illegitimate and a creation of Washington. Castro weighing in
personally was a first.
Zapata Tamayo, jailed since 2003 on charges including disrespecting
authority, died Tuesday at a hospital in the capital following a hunger
strike, becoming the first imprisoned opposition figure to die in such a
protest in nearly four decades.
In life, he was not one of the island's leading dissident voices. In
death, his plight has quickly reverberated far beyond Cuba.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S.
government was "deeply saddened" to hear of Zapata Tamayo's death. He said
that U.S. diplomats who were in Havana last week for migration talks had
raised the case with their Cuban counterparts.
"Mr. Orlando Zapata Tamayo's death highlights the injustice of Cuba's
holding more than 200 political prisoners who should now be released
without delay," Crowley said.
In Brussels, European Union spokesman John Clancy called for Cuba to
release all political prisoners and show more respect for human rights.
"The European Commission deeply regrets the death of political prisoner
Orlando Zapata and offer our condolences to his family," Clancy said,
adding that human rights on the island "remain a key priority for the EU."
And in London, Amnesty International called for an investigation into
whether poor conditions played any part in Zapata Tamayo's death. Gerardo
Ducos, Amnesty International's Caribbean researcher, called it "a terrible
illustration of the despair facing prisoners of conscience who see no hope
of being freed from their unfair and prolonged incarceration,"
Spain, whose socialist government has been seeking to improve European
relations with Cuba since it took over the EU presidency in January, said
it was shocked.
"The Spanish government profoundly deplores the death of Orlando; the
death of a human rights defender in Cuba," Deputy Prime Minister Manuel
Chaves said Wednesday. "There is a deficit of human rights in that
Mariano Rajoy, leader of the opposition Popular Party, sent a telegram to
"The death of Orlando Zapata symbolizes the commitment of the Cuban people
to liberty and dignity and is an admirable example of dedication for
democrats throughout the world," he said.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero expressed "dismay" at the
death of Orlando Zapata and said Paris had called on Cuba to release him.
Official reaction was muted in Latin America, whose governments this week
held a "unity summit" that included Raul Castro and that unanimously
denounced the U.S. embargo of the island.
Cuba describes the dissidents as paid stooges and says Washington greatly
exaggerates their numbers and influence as a way of justifying its 48-year
embargo on the island.
In Castro's statement, which the Foreign Ministry released under a
photograph of the Cuban leader, the president said Zapata Tamayo's death
"is a result of the relationship with the United States." It was not clear
what he meant.
When the visiting U.S. diplomats held a reception for about 40 dissidents
last week, Cuba put out an angry statement that the meeting proved that
Washington is out to overthrow the government.
Veteran dissidents were joined by a relatively new voice: the son of
revolutionary hero Juan Almeida Bosque, who fought alongside Fidel Castro
in the guerrilla uprising that brought down dictator Fulgencio Batista in
Juan Juan Almeida Garcia posted an open letter to Raul Castro on his
daughter's Facebook page Wednesday saying the Cuban president should be
embarrassed by the death.
"Must we go to such extremes? ... I beg of you to resign. Get out of this
country. You don't deserve respect," he wrote. The younger Almeida was
briefly jailed in November when after petitioning the government for
permission to travel to the United States for medical care.
The British Embassy in Havana did not mention Zapata Tamayo's case
specifically, but said it was "worried about human rights abuses and due
legal process in Cuba."
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and
National Reconciliation, told the Associated Press that Zapata Tamayo was
arrested in 2003 and held for months without charge before being sentenced
to three years in prison in his native Holguin province for disrespecting
Tamayo, a 42-year-old builder, was subsequently sentenced to 25 years for
activism behind bars, Sanchez said, and was deemed by Amnesty
International a "prisoner of conscience." He was one of a small number of
Afro-Cubans in the island's tiny dissident community
As of January, Sanchez's commission counted 201 political prisoners in
Cuban jails. Cuba says it holds none.
Sanchez said Zapata Tamayo stopped accepting solid food on Dec. 3,
drinking only water and a few liquids, some of which were forced on him by
authorities. He was transferred to Kilo 8 Prison in Camaguey and placed in
solitary confinement, where he continued to refuse solids, Sanchez said.
As his health deteriorated, Zapata Tamayo was taken to Havana's Combinado
del Este prison earlier this month, where he received some treatment in a
lockup clinic, then was transferred to Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras the
day before his death.
Sanchez said the last Cuban dissident to die in prison was Pedro Luis
Boitel, a Cuban poet who passed away after a 53-day hunger strike in 1972.
Sanchez said family members planned a funeral service later Wednesday in
Zapata Tamayo's hometown of Banes on Cuba's northeast coast.
He said authorities in eastern Cuba had detained dozens of activists,
preventing some from attending funeral services — but that claim could not
be immediately be confirmed with police or the government.
A well-known dissident group, the "Ladies in White," held a small
gathering in Zapata Tamayo's honor at the Havana home of one of their
founders, Laura Pollan.
Associated Press reporters Will Weissert and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana,
Jorge Sainz in Madrid, Jamey Keaten in Paris and Robert Wielaard in
Brussels contributed to this report.