Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the plumber whose death after a hunger strike that lasted 85 days has put the Cuban government in one of the most difficult spots in the last few years, had a long trajectory of bouts with Cuban tribunals. After nine summary judgments, his sentences accumulated more than 57 years in prison, according to his mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo Danger, a member of the Ladies in White, a group of women who are asking the Cuban government to release their unjustly incarcerated husbands, children, brothers and nephews. At the moment of his death, Zapata Tamayo was serving a new, “consolidated” sentence of 25 years, not including the seven years he had already spent in prison.
In 2002, Zapata Tamayo was jailed after having been arrested accused of “disrespect.” In 2003, his participation in a fast for the rights of the Cuban political prisoners, alongside Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello and other members of the opposition, lead to his been arrested around the days of the repressive raid of the Cuban Black Spring and, subsequently, he was taken to the prison “Kilo 8,” in Camagüey.
Throughout this time in prison, Zapata Tamayo maintained a tenacious attitude against the authorities of the penitentiary regarding the recognition by the regime of his rights as prisoner of conscience —recognized as such by Amnesty International in 2004. His mother has denounced insistently all the abuses he has been subjected to, including, for instance, the fact that during the hunger strike that ended his life, he was denied water for eighteen days, which lead to kidney failure.
But the abuses against this dissident go way back. In 2008, he had an emergency surgery because of a brain hematoma that was the product of a beating from the prison guards. Not even a full year had passed after this surgery when Zapata Tamayo was beaten again. His mother mentions three new beatings that left as the evidence the t-shirts with which Zapata was drying his wounds and where he wrote his testament: “[Here is] my blood to the service of freedom and democracy for the eleven million Cubans who, when trying to express themselves, because of their fear, they become more incarcerated than they already are.”
In the face of the conditions of his incarceration and demanding a dignified treatment, he started a hunger strike between December 2nd and 3rd, 2009. As it is usual in Cuba when prisoners declared themselves in a hunger strike, he was taken to solitary confinement. At an undetermined date, Zapata Tamayo disappeared and his case started echoing outside the island, until it was known that he had been taken to the Hospital of Camagüey, where he was given liquids intravenously against his will. On February 16th, 2010, his condition worsened and he was taken to the hospital of the prison “Combinado del Este,” in Havana, where his condition did not improve.
Hours before dying, Zapata Tamayo was taken to Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras, in Havana, where he died. He was buried in Banes —in the eastern part of the country— in the midst of a military deployment that involved 1,000 agents and soldiers whose objective was to prevent a gathering of dissidents in the whereabouts of his funeral. A wave of repulsion against the regime of the Castro brothers followed his death.