The Legacy of a Hero

This February 23, 2011 marks the first anniversary of the death of Cuban martyr Orlando Zapata Tamayo after a prolonged hunger strike that he began after receiving one more of the many beatings this dignified rebel suffered at the hands of the prison guards in eastern Cuba. The fast was his way of demanding respect for his rights as human beings. Unfortunately this decision cost him much more than physical pain, because the indolence of the regime in the face of it caused his death.

No doubt the order to deny water to this man on a hunger–but not a thirst–strike, for 17 days, was issued from the top leadership of the country. They tried to neutralize Zapata Tamayo, by all possible means and only managed to make him another martyr of our country while writing another dark chapter in the criminal history of the communist dictatorship in Havana.

Zapata had several qualities incompatible with dictatorship: he was rebellious, courageous, determined, consistent and a black dissident. This last was most irritated the regime and tipped the balance against the young bricklayer.

For the first time in 51 years of totalitarianism, the press officer was forced, because of the international outcry it provoked, to mention the fast of a Cuban political prisoner, even if only after his death. The headquarters of the Cuban Communist Party used all its media power to discredit Orlando Zapata Tamayo and disparage the pain of his mother, Reina. The maneuver backfired, because few believed the crude ruse.

Zapata Tamayo’s death was the main impetus for the international community to unite their voices with regards to the situation of political prisoners in Cuba. Much of the international left, until then unconditional supporters of the regime, were aroused from the lethargy that for years had blindfolded them, and they joined in the criticism. The Cuban diaspora took to the streets and was heard as never before.

The movement for amnesty for prisoners of conscience were multiplied in different latitudes. Many politicians, always ready to enjoy a Cuban mojito with the dictator of Havana, were in favor of the release and condemned the death. Only a few continued with the silent complicity before the dictatorship.

The sacrifice of Zapata Tamayo, followed immediately by the hunger strike of Guillermo Fariñas led to the release and subsequent exile to Spain of many of us, prisoners of conscience from the Black Spring of 2003 and subsequently of other Cuban political prisoners. Still, six of our comrades remain behind bars for refusing to abandon the land where they were born.

They took the life of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, but seeded the rebellion and awareness of many Cubans. I have confidence that with the participation of all Cubans, those inside and those of us now in exile, Cuba will soon be a democracy and the executioners of the martyr and all our people will answer for their crimes.

They assassinated a black rebel, but his death has not been in vain, his legacy is now the pillar that sustains Cuban democrats and his name is an indissoluble part of national history. To pay tribute to him on every anniversary of his murder is more than a right, duty and honor to one who gave everything for his ideals, even the most precious, his life.


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