Commentary: Cuba put on the spot over Zapata Tamayo's death

Cuba's military dictatorship — that's what it is, by any dictionary's definition — is in an awkward position following the death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata after an 83-day hunger strike, and the decision of four other jailed dissidents to stop eating to demand the release of all prisoners of conscience.

Predictably, the United States and most European democracies issued statements condemning Cuba's human rights abuses. And predictably, many Latin American countries — including some who claim to champion human rights, such as Argentina and Mexico — have remained silent, or made wishy-washy statements.

But the big question is how Zapata's death will play where it really counts — inside Cuba. For the first three days after the death of the Afro-Cuban bricklayer imprisoned since 2003, the regime of Gen. Raul Castro had not allowed the Cuban media to report it.

Finally, on Saturday, the muzzle was removed.

There are three scenarios about how Zapata's death may impact Cuba.

First Scenario: If the four imprisoned hunger strikers — plus others who have joined them outside — continue their protest, there will be growing international pressure on Cuba to free the 200 political prisoners who languish in Cuban jails, or at the very least allow the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Roman Catholic Church to visit them.

Ironically, ICRC missions are allowed into the U.S. detainee camp of Guantánamo to visit suspected terrorists, but they are not allowed into Cuban jails holding prisoners jailed because of their opinions, or for refusing to accept the regime's "ideological rehabilitation" programs for prisoners of conscience.

Monsignor Emilio Aranguren, the bishop of Holguin, the Cuban province where Zapata was imprisoned, told me in a telephone interview that he requested in 2008 and 2009 to see the prisoner.

"His mother was a member of this diocese, and she had asked me to visit her son," the bishop said. "I made the request, but the only answer I got was a verbal statement from one official, who said the prisoner was under disciplinary conditions that did not make it possible to grant such a meeting."

Second Scenario: Zapata's death will unify Cuba's widely fragmented pro-democracy movement, because it's the first known death of an imprisoned dissident since student activist Pedro Luis Boitel died during a hunger strike in prison in 1972.

Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, head of Cuba's Human Human Rights Commission, told me in a telephone interview that there is a big difference between Boitel and Zapata's deaths.

In the first case, the world didn't hear about it until "months or years later," he said. In Zapata's case, his death was reported worldwide almost immediately because his case was being followed by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and the news of his death is beginning to trickle into Cuba through shortwave radio broadcasts from abroad, he said.

"The human rights movement in Cuba has reacted as if we were one single person, with one single voice, condemning Zapata's death," Sanchez said.

"There is a lot of discontent here, and this will lead to many more expressions of discontent."

Third Scenario: Zapata's death will soon be forgotten, like so many other Cuban human rights violations in the past. Cuba's regime will blame the tragedy on "U.S. imperialism'' -- as it already has -- or the CIA, and that will be it.

"Cuba's repressive apparatus will most likely prevent any major protest," says Jose Miguel Vivanco of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group. "To get out of this situation, we would need effective international pressure, and I don't see it anywhere."

My opinion: Zapata's death will not lead to any internal upheaval. At best, it will make it a bit harder for Latin American leaders to pose smilingly for the cameras with a military dictator with fresh blood on his hands, as they did at a Feb. 23 summit in Mexico, or as the president of Brazil did Feb. 24 in Cuba at the very time Zapata was dying in prison. And it may also make it a bit harder for Spain, the current chair of the European Union, to go forward with its plans to normalize Europe's relations with Cuba, as if that country were any civilized democracy.

It is not. The least democratic-minded people everywhere can do is to demand loudly and clearly that Cuba free all political prisoners -- the same way we did when we were lashing out against right-wing military dictatorships.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.