Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a Cuban political dissent imprisoned for disrespecting authority, died after a lengthy hunger strike at a clinic at Havana’s Combinado del Este prison.
Zapata Tamayo, 42, was arrested along with 74 others in 2003 for contempt and disrespect of authority. The year of his arrest, Amnesty International called him “prisoner of conscience.” He was originally sentenced to three years, said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. His sentenced was extended to 25 years, primarily because he continued to speak out against Fidel Castro while in prison. Zapata Tamayo went on a hunger strike on December 3, 2009 after accusing the prison guards of repeatedly beating him. He refused to wear a prison uniform, demanded a separate cell from the common prisoners and requested that his family be allowed to bring him food. His hunger strike lasted eleven weeks.
His family told reporters and human rights groups last week that the prison doctors said he was gravely ill. Word of Mr Zapata Tamayo’s death was first reported on Cuban exile radio stations in southern Florida, which broadcast an interview with his mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo.”The death of my son has been a premeditated murder,” Reina Luisa told the newspaper in a telephone interview. News of his death drew a strong reaction among South Florida leaders who evoked messages of sympathy for his family.
“It is sad to note that this tragic death of Zapata Tamayo at the hands of the brutal Castro regime comes on the day before another anniversary of four other victims of the Castro dictatorship, the unarmed pilots of Brothers to the Rescue,” said Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “I offer my heartfelt condolences to Zapata Tamayo’s mother, his family and fellow prisoners of conscience. His life and sacrifice will never be forgotten. Let us take his sad and untimely death and renew our commitment to assure that the Cuba of the future is rid of the failed ideology which killed this brave man.”
Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Democrat who represents the 17th Congressional District, issued the following statement: “My thoughts and prayers are with Orlando’s mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, and his family at this most difficult time. The Cuban government’s stunning lack of respect for human rights was highlighted by Orlando as much in his life as in his death. He stood for freedom in the face of indignity and joins those who have put their lives on the line for the reality of a free Cuba. His stand was an act of conviction – a call for freedom in the face of oppression.”
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican who represents the 21st Congressional District, offered his sympathies to his family. “Like Pedro Luis Boitel, the martyrdom of Orlando Zapata Tamayo is now part of Cuba’s most glorious history. His murder by the tyrant Fidel Castro and his cowardly jailers will never be forgotten, nor will it be subject to any future statutes of limitations,” Diaz-Balart wrote. “Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s sacrifice will not be in vain, and he will be forever remembered with infinite honor by the Cuban Republic.”
U.S. Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson, of Florida, said in his own statement that ”freedom-loving people everywhere should hold the Cuban regime responsible for the fate of Orlando Zapata Tamayo.”
The last time an opponent of the communist government died in Cuba during a hunger strike was 1972 with poet and activist Pedro Luis Boitel.