Disobedience unto death

February 26, 2010

Orlando Zapata Tamayo

Orlando Zapata Tamayo was a plumber and a bricklayer in Cuba:  not an elite figure.  But he had political opinions.  He was active in a political group.  I don’t much know about the opinions or the group, but in the end it doesn’t matter.  They weren’t the official opinions imposed on the population by the old men’s regime in Cuba.  It wasn’t an officially sanctioned group.

In December 2002, Zapata was imprisoned for a crime that translates as “disobedience.”  He didn’t toe the line.  He forgot to be afraid.  He spoke and acted like a free man, and the semi-corpses who rule the island considered this a breach of discipline.  Freedom had to be squashed, obedience imposed:  Zapata spent eight years in one of Cuba’s grim provincial prisons.

There he was regularly beaten and abused.  No doubt, the idea was to break the disobedient man, to make him docile, resigned to the yoke.  Zapata would not break.  He was clearly the kind of stubborn laborer who could not say “white” when he saw black, or “good” when he saw evil:  Lech Walesa comes to mind.  This attitude, and the notoriety it gained for him, only earned more concentrated abuse.

Early in December of last year, in desperation, he began a hunger strike.  He publicly denounced his torturers, and criticized the conditions in which his fellow prisoners were kept.  He was moved to a hospital – one story has it that he was denied water for many days.  As his condition worsened, he was moved again, to Havana.

On 23 February, Orlando Zapata Tamayo died.  His death gave those rushing to embrace the Cuban regime – out of innocence, or self-loathing, or anti-Americanism – a moment of pause.  Brazilian president Lula da Silva, democratically elected, arrived in Havana just as Zapata was expiring.  With Raul Castro standing at his side, Da Silva regretted the event but said he was opposed to hunger strikes.

I too am opposed to hunger strikes.  I’m against suicide.  My circumstances, however, like Da Silva’s, are grounded in freedom and personal choice.

That was all Zapata asked for.  As the torture and humiliations in prison continued, he must have felt the future shrivel until only two narrow doorways were left ahead.  One led to falsehood and surrender.  The horror and despair that drove him through the other door to a disobedient death, neither I nor Da Silva can imagine.

The independent-minded Cuban blogosphere has been mourning his loss.  Claudia Cadelo of Octavo Cerco (“Eighth Circle,” in Spanish) reflects on how, on most days, she feels proud of her country and her fellow Cubans.  But she concludes:

However, there are other days when I feel deeply ashamed of the land of my birth.  At times I look at the people and they are faceless, they are all the same and all are afraid.  Days when I know nobody will be saved, nobody will shout out, nobody will extend a hand and nobody will say “my love” because the terror is too great.  Days of indolence, of regret, and of powerlessness for them and for me.  Days in which the waiting gets too long.  Days when the pain makes me weep and I can’t understand why the others aren’t weeping.  Days in which it seems absolutely necessary that a sea of tears stream from 12th Street to Malecon, because our dried-out eyes lead us nowhere.

Since the death of Tamayo all my days have become like that.

Cadelo’s post was translated in full by Leandro Feal of Babalu Blog.  It’s more than worth a read.