Friday, February 26, 2010

Zapata esta muerto; Viva Zapata!

Zapata, the Unyielding

Ernesto Hernandez Busto, Barcelona
El Pais, Friday, February 26, 2010

The “Hot Corner” it’s called by people in Havana, a spot in Central Park devoted to heated discussions about baseball. Some consider it the only space for democratic discourse on the island that survives, as long as the ardent polemicists confine themselves to sports.

It was the spot chosen by Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a member of the alternative Republican Movement (a small, pacifist dissident group founded in 2002), to complain about “how bad things are.” The same day, Dec. 6, 2002, two agents from the political police arrested him and a few hours later he was charged with contempt, public disorder, and disobedience.

Zapata Tamayo was imprisoned for several months in the Guanajay maximum security prison on the outskirts of Havana, from where he was conditionally released on March 7, 2003.

Not even his fellow dissidents can explain how, given his legal status, this humble, black bricklayer and plumber found the courage, in that same month, to join in a fast with Martha Beatriz Roque and four other activists to denounce the situation of Oscar Elías Biscet and other political prisoners. Zapata could have cited the possible revocation of his conditional parole as a reason not to participate.

But he acted out of conviction, and the so-called Black Spring claimed a new victim.

Zapata was tried on May 18, 2004, and sentenced to 3 years in prison. His long ordeal then began, a story I would love to have the luxury of recounting in detail, one that could be made into a action-packed film (subgenre: “imprisonment”) if it weren’t for the fact that Hollywood almost always prefers a happy ending.

Let’s turn our attention, first, to the protagonist: he was born May 15, 1967 – the year officially dubbed “Year of Heroic Vietnam” – in the town of Banes in eastern Cuba where he is now buried. Banes was, incidentally, the birthplace of Fulgencio Batista and the house of the richest landowner in the region is now the municipal headquarters of the Communist Party.

Reina, a woman of great will but scant education; Rogelio, an absent father; a stepfather who assumed the upbringing of a large family (Orlando was the second of five children)… these are just some facts regarding the environment surrounding a difficult childhood. Zapata Tamayo set himself up in Havana as a bricklayer, where he suffered the marginalization of the undocumented emigrant who leaves the eastern provinces and tries to survive in the capital.

Perhaps all of this had something to do with his decision to join the opposition in a country where dissidents are automatically considered a social plague.

There are few photographs of Zapata Tamayo: a black-and-white identity card photo; another group photo of the fast that led to his imprisonment, where he is not even looking at the camera. His ordeal in the Cuban penitentiary system is, however, well documented and worthy of review, because it serves as an illustration of the world of horrors barely talked about in the major media.

The first thing that stands out is the number of prisons he passed through during those 7 long years. This is “explained” (and here the euphemism borders on insult), on the grounds that Zapata was a “problem prisoner,” a rebellious smart aleck. (It’s not by chance that the Cuban slang for a reckless loudmouth is “arrested.”)

Although all his fellow dissidents agree that he was a likeable, smiling person of few words, in prison he showed an unusual courage and systematically displayed an obstinacy, animated by the conviction of the truly stubborn: those determined not to allow the authorities to crush them underfoot, or to “lord it over them.” Psychological behavior very similar to those communists of the aborted 1930s revolution against Machado, or the members of the Revolutionary Directorate in Havana in the 1950s. (It is worth clarifying, however, as Enrique del Risco and Luis Manual García have done, the difference between a three week hunger strike such as that undertaken by the communist leader Julio Antonio Mella in December 1925, and Zapata’s 85-day strike, which left a shocking cadaver where one could see the marks of the tonfas that the police and prison guards used to beat him.)

So, let’s get back to our story. The three-year prison sentence Zapata Tamayo earned in the Black Spring seemed a small thing compared to the sentences of his comrades. But political passion and a vocation some have defined as “stoic” led to subsequent acts of prison protest, which increased his sentence to 36 years.

He first served time in the Guanajay penitentiary. In April 2004, he quarreled with the prison director to demand that some magazines, seized in a search, be returned to him. The guards handcuffed him and beat him, causing multiple injuries to his face and teeth.

Soon after, in front of his mother, the prison director, Col. Wilfredo Velázquez Domínguez from the Ministry of the Interior (MININT), again beat the prisoner, who was isolated in a punishment cell known as “The Tower.” On Jan. 15, 2005, Zapata was transferred to the Taco-Taco prison in Pinar del Rio province, where he undertook his first hunger strike.

By that date, a French member of parliament, Thierry Mariani, who had been named “godfather” to the Cuban prisoner through international avenues of solidarity, had contacted French President Jacques Chirac, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, and René Mujica, the charge d'affaires at the Cuban Embassy in Paris, to express his concern for Zapata’s health. It was the first in a long series of public communications about the puzzling case. None of which had any effect.

In 2005, Zapata began to “dig his feet in.” He was one of those prisoners who refuse to wear the clothes of the common convict and demand to be treated as a political prisoner. One more in the tradition of Mario Chanes de Armas, and so many others, who turned a moral gesture into a prison protest movement. This cost Zapata the second of seven trials he would be subjected to in his life. In none of them was he allowed to have his family present during the hearings, nor did he have the right to a real defense.

A full description of the humiliations and horrors that this self-declared “re-education system” inflicted on this dissident’s life would be nearly interminable. But I do not want to spare the names of several miscreants, and this is a story full of miscreants.

Every time Zapata was transferred between prisons, the authorities didn’t even take the trouble to tell his mother. She would learn about it on her arrival, after a difficult journey to the prison carrying bags of food for her son which were, on more than one occasion, confiscated, and which nearly cost her a complaint for “misappropriation.” Cookies, powdered milk, things like that… In July 2007 when she returned to Holguin after a visit in Camagüey, Reina was in a traffic accident. Two ribs punctured her lung and she needed emergency surgery.

Already, in the Holguin prison, Zapata Tamayo had become the preferred victim of a species of human scum, a tropical version of the urkas of Stalin’s gulag: prisoner-assassins who, in exchange for visits, preferred housing, and reduced sentences, do the guards’ dirty work, dedicating themselves to beating and intimidating political prisoners.

The most significant beating Zapata received occurred on March 21, 2008. Shortly afterward, July 26, 2008, two common criminals, one from Mayarí and another named Roberto Gonzales, alias “The Colt,” threw ten buckets of water in his cell and beat him with a broomstick. As payment for this outrage, “The Colt” earned himself a 72-hour conjugal visit.

The last year of Zapata’s life was the worst. On Friday, May 15, 2009, accused of “disrespect and disorder in penitentiary establishments,” ten years was added to his already lengthened sentence.

In Oct. 2009, several guards in the Holguin provincial prison gave him another beating, including a strong kick in the head. This blow caused an subdural hematoma, for which he had to be operated on.

On Dec. 3, 2009, after the only food he had decided to eat in captivity was confiscated, Zapata began a new hunger strike in Kilo 8 prison in Camagüey, demanding “the same privileges that Fulgencio Batista gave Fidel Castro when he was an inmate in the Modelo Fortress.”

Locked in solitary, the authorities deprived him of water for 18 days, which led to renal failure.

In mid-February, as he lay dying, after seventy days of hunger strike, he was transferred to the hospital of the Combinado Prison of East Havana, which, according to declarations by several former prisoners, did not have the conditions for adequate treatment.

Zapata Tamayo died on February 23, after just 15 hours in the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital, where he had been admitted the previous night when his death was imminent. He was brought there to die and even in these circumstances the political police could not contain their contempt. According to his mother, an officer joked, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that he is in Ameijeiras Hospital; the bad news is that he is dying.”

He was not invincible, in the manner of famous prisoners whose biographies the press enjoys sharing with us. Nor is his story that of the liberator who gets to see the realization of his ideals. But the man whom they are now burying in La Güira cemetery represents something superior on a moral scale, something very nearly approaching martyrdom. He was not an invictus, the kind of illustrious and invincible prisoner the press likes to talk about. He was unyielding.

Ernesto Hernandez Busto, Penultimos Dias

Translated by R. Anavy and M.J. Porter

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