Hunger strike death of Cuban Orlando Zapata Tamayo is food for thought

The death, after a prolonged hunger strike, of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a prisoner of conscience in Cuba, has been widely reported in the media today.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo was one of 55 prisoners of conscience in Cuba to have been adopted by Amnesty International. Most were among the 75 people arrested as part of the massive March 2003 crackdown by authorities against political activists. He was charged with an array of spurious offences including “disrespect” and “resistance”.

Such charges are commonplace in Cuba, where freedom of expression is severely limited.  The media remains under strict state control and a great many of those imprisoned in Cuban jails for whom Amnesty has ongoing concerns are journalists, bloggers or musicians.

The Cuban President Raúl Castro decided, uncharacteristically, to comment on Orlando’s death. The public comment is presumably testament to the authorities’ concern that Zapata’s high profile status could serve to galvanise opposition activists, despite the fact that there were no official reports of his passing in the state controlled press (according to the Times). In the statement they also blamed the US for his death, though no attempt was made to justify that accusation.

Aged only 42, it is staggering to think that an otherwise healthy young man would be driven to the extreme of refusing to eat in order to highlight the plight of prisoners. One can only imagine what alternative he must have faced, if such a painful and prolonged way of taking his life seemed like his only option . There is a dark irony in the fact that someone who had been vocal in his dissent, and whom the authorities had tried to gag for so long, chose to shut his mouth himself in this final act of defiance. There is an ongoing US embargo with Cuba and sanctions, including food restrictions, are still in place.  There’s yet more irony in the fact that Zapata’s own decision to deprive his body of what it needed to exist has proved fatal; in a way that external deprivation of trade has not so far been fatal for the Castro government. The only hope now must be that his death heralds an end to the persecution suffered by the remaining prisoners of conscience and provides vital sustenance to the human rights movement in Cuba.

 Amnesty is currently campaigning for the release of Journalist Pablo Pacheco Avila, who was also arrested in the 2003 crack down. You can take action on his behalf here.

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