This Man of Human Rights
At 71 years of age, Juan Bolaños has not given up the custom of sitting on the corner every morning, after running errands and waiting in line for the newspaper. Sometimes his retired friends join him. Together they read the press, so they can learn everything that’s going on in the neighborhood. Today in the Granma newspaper, a headline in large black letters reads: “Whom Does the Death Serve?”
Bolaños is carefully reading the article: “News agencies and governments rush to condemn Cuba for the death in prison, on February 23rd, of the Cuban Orlando Zapata Tamayo,” said Enrique Ubieta, the official reporter in the published article.
“He was a man of human rights, I saw that on the foreign news channels,” says Roberto, a 69-year-old, who joins the conversation on the corner.
For the government, men like Orlando Zapata Tamayo are criminals and mercenaries in the service of a foreign power. But for the general population, the dissidents are known as “the people of human rights.” They label them this because everyone knows what they stand for.
However, Zapata Tamayo, one of those “men of human rights,” was unknown to the Cubans. “A construction worker who did not want to leave the country, a disciplined man, humble and steadfast in his ideas,” as described by the dissident Martha Beatriz Roque.
In an attempt to disparage someone who is not physically able to defend himself, Ubieta publicizes Zapata’s criminal record. All were misdemeanors, in which the penalties did not exceed a one-year jail term. He was not a threat to society, as Ubieta tried to portray him.
If this is so, how can it be explained that in the year 2000 he was tried for three different misdemeanors? What casts doubt is that on these occasions he was already imprisoned for his crimes.
The “disorderly conduct” (a crime not regulated in the criminal law) and “public disorder” charges of 2002, stemmed from his participation in activities convened by the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, an organization created by Oscar Elias Biscet, sentenced in April, 2003 to 25 years in prison.
As correctly recounted by the official reporter, on March 9, 2003, Zapata Tamayo was released, along with 11 others (including Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, René Gómez Manzano, Félix Bonne Carcasses, Nelson Aguiar Ramírez and Nelson Molinet Espino) who were involved in a fast for Biscet’s release. It was interrupted in the early hours of the 20th, by the arrest of almost all the participants.
He was released on bail and in the following days he was found guilty of the crime of contempt, an offense that those who criticize authority are charged with. The penalty is 3 years, if committed against the President, members of the State Council, Ministers, or the National Assembly. Not coincidentally, that was the duration of the initial sentence of Zapata Tamayo.
His rebellion within the prison was severely punished. He refused to wear prison clothes or eat prison food. Successive penalties were added to his sentence for alleged unruliness in prison. In May 2009, the court calculated his last penalty; the end result was 32 years imprisonment.
According to his cellmates, in court he shouted for human rights. The last time, his jailers gagged him and chained him hand and foot. The same murderers who, when he announced his hunger strike, isolated him in a punishment cell for 18 days, without offering him water. His vital organs deteriorated irreversibly, not from outside instigation, but from the lazy arrogance of his guards.
This was the same insensitivity they showed to the pain of a mother. Reina Luisa Tamayo Danger saw the second of her five children alive for the last time when they transferred him from the Amalia Simoni Hospital in Camagüey to the clinic of the Eastern Combined Prison on the outskirts of the capital.
They did not allow her to accompany him or hear his last breath. They did not forgive her, for standing firm and supporting her son in his decision, although it led to him losing his life. They accused her of being a bad influence on her son when she desperately looked for him, four days before his death, in Department 21 of State Security.
A mother never gets over outliving one of her children. Luisa Reina will retain in her memory the image of the lifeless body of her son in a bed at Ameijeiras Brothers Hospital, the painful feeling, on passing her hand over blackened patches on his skin, the results of torture, the traces of bruises left by the batons of his captors.
His requests were not an “absurd assertion of impossible demands”; to claim his rights he compared his conditions of imprisonment with what Fidel Castro enjoyed at the model prison of Isle of Pines after the Moncada Barracks attack in 1953, during the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who pardoned him after 22 months of confinement.
Yes, it is a fact that he engaged in several hunger strikes, as it is also a fact that his name did not appear on the list of the 75 dissidents jailed in March 2003. Zapata Tamayo never sought prominence, but demanded that his oppressors recognize his status as a political prisoner.
Four days after the death of this modest but indefatigable fighter, the newspaper Granma, the only newspaper of national circulation, and an organ of the Communist Party, reported the event. It did not mention that he engaged in an 86-day hunger strike, or that the government had the opportunity to prevent his death.
But Juan Bolaños and his retired friends, like thousands of other Cubans, know more than the regime wants them to about Orlando Zapata Tamayo, that man of human rights.
Text and photos: Laritza Diversent
Translated by: Tomás A.