WASHINGTON — The mother of Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died after an 85-day hunger strike, gave emotional accounts Tuesday of her son’s death in captivity to dismayed lawmakers.
A sober-faced Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, led Reina Luisa Tamayo to meetings with senators and House members who listened in rapt attention as she described Zapata’s ordeal at notorious Kilo 7 prison in Camaguey province.
“I would go to every corner of the world to ask for justice for the cause of my son who was assassinated,” Tamayo told reporters in Rubio’s Capitol Hill office. “The Castro brothers (Fidel and Raul) are murderers and every door should be closed to them. We have to fight for liberty and justice for all Cubans. Our people are suffering.”
Her hands shaking, Tamayo held up a blood-stained white T-shirt she said her son gave her shortly before his death at 42 in February 2010.
Tamayo, 62, said the blood came from vicious beatings Zapata endured while refusing to eat during his 15-month imprisonment. She said his captors denied him water for 18 days toward the end of his life.
“They murdered Orlando Zapata in premeditated fashion,” Tamayo said, her voice rising. “This mother would be incapable of making such a strong allegation against the government unless I held proof in my own hands.”
Tamayo read from writings her son had inscribed on the shirt.
“My blood is in service to liberty for all 11 million Cubans who don’t express themselves because they fear joining the many who are already in prison,” Tamayo read. “Long live the shirt of the prisoner of conscience!”
Rubio, elected to his first Senate term last November in an upset victory over then-Gov. Charlie Crist and Rep. Kendrick Meek, held up what he said was incriminating evidence of a different sort.
Displaying a recent newspaper article about increased U.S. tourism opportunities in Cuba, Rubio criticized President Barack Obama for loosening the decades-old travel ban on the communist-led island nation 90 miles off the Florida coast.
The Obama administration earlier this year started allowing students and church groups to travel to Cuba, and it expanded the number of airports that can offer charter service there beyond three in Miami, New York and Los Angeles.
Rubio, a West Miami Republican, was joined at a news conference with Tamayo by Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson of Tallahassee and Bob Menendez – whose parents also emigrated from Cuba -- of New Jersey.
“We’re honored to be in the presence of a hero who has witnessed firsthand the brutality of the Castro regime and the reality of Cuba today,” Rubio said. “It is the brutal reality of a brutal dictatorship that oppresses its people and violates human rights on a consistent basis.”
Nelson noted that he and Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, sponsored a resolution honoring the life of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, which the Senate passed unanimously in March 2010 shortly after his death.
The measure called on the United States “to continue policies that focus on respect for the fundamental tenets of freedom, democracy and human rights in Cuba and encourage peaceful democratic change consistent with the aspirations of the people of Cuba.”
Before meeting with senators, Tamayo appeared at a House briefing hosted by Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican who was born in Havana.
“Cuba is a tropical gulag where the Castro brothers serve as prison wardens and executioners,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Anyone who has any doubt about that truth should listen to the sad story of Reina Luisa Tamayo.”
Fidel Castro ruled Cuba from 1959, after the Communist overthrow of U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, until he fell ill in 2008. His brother, Raul Castro, replaced him in power.
Tamayo gained political asylum in the United States and arrived in Miami last month carrying her son’s ashes in a shoe-size box. Zapata’s remains were buried June 25 in a Bay of Pigs mausoleum at Dade South Memorial Park cemetery, marking the first time someone who wasn’t a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion was interred with participants in the 1961 failed military action against Fidel Castro.