Many go on hunger strikes, few die from doing so. On February 23, Orlando Zapata Tamayo died. He was a Cuban political prisoner, one of about 200 kept in the Castros’ cells — in the “Cuban gulag,” as it has been rightly called. Conditions in that gulag are monstrous and unspeakable. The cruelty of man seems to know no bounds. Since the Communist triumph in 1959, many Cuban political prisoners have gone on hunger strikes, out of desperation. They feel they have no other option, no other card to play.
Hunger strikes are problematic, morally and otherwise, and we will discuss some of those problems in a moment. First, however, a word or two more about Zapata.
He was a plumber and bricklayer, and he was black — an “Afro-Cuban,” as so many leaders of the democracy movement are. He was 42 years old when he died. Zapata was fearless in his demands for basic human rights, one of those dissidents who will risk everything. He was arrested, for the final time, in the notorious crackdown of March 2003, known as the “Black Spring.” In prison, the guards beat him constantly. They also tortured him in the usual, shocking ways. He began his hunger strike on December 3. He wanted to be recognized as a prisoner of conscience and not be forced to wear the uniform of common criminals. He also wanted, ideally, to be treated as Fidel Castro was treated, when the future dictator was a prisoner, for a year and a half, of the Batista regime.
Oh, did Castro have it made! Large, comfortable quarters, full mail privileges, conjugal visits, daily exercise and sports, excellent food, two baths a day. He said in a letter, “They’re going to make me think I’m on vacation.”
When Zapata was on his hunger strike, the authorities denied him water for 18 days — they typically do this to hunger strikers. Zapata suffered kidney failure. Then they held him naked over a powerful air conditioner, which gave him pneumonia. As Zapata was dying, protests were staged throughout Cuba: vigils, sit-ins, and the like. The prisoner’s mother, Reina Luisa, pled with his fellow Cubans to express solidarity. “Do not be afraid of blows,” she said, for “it is worthier to die upright than to die kneeling.”
Zapata held out for a remarkable 83 days. When he died, his mother accused the Cuban state of murder, and so did many others. There was fierce anguish among Cubans both on the island and in exile. Not a great deal was said by the world’s governments and social leaders. Lula da Silva, the lionized president of Brazil, was in Havana the day after Zapata died, to pay court to the Castros. He said nothing.