Every time I pass by the sports fan club in Parque Central, right in the heart of Havana, I think I hear Orlando Zapata Tamayo debating baseball matters.
Baseball was more than a passion for him. It was a style of life. The dissident — jailed for three years in 2003 for the crime of contempt, and then later the sentence was extended to 32 years for his rebellious attitude inside the prison – was a Cuban in its purest form.
I prefer the simple type of Banes, who like thousands of fellow countrymen born in the eastern regions of the island, flee from the ‘obstine‘ (frustration) and poverty in their villages and try to find better luck in the capital.
Zapata was one of those. In Havana he worked as an assistant bricklayer in the construction of Parque Central hotel, where at this very moment I’m composing this note. His political concerns were identical to those of the silent majority of Cubans, drivers with old cars for hire, fritura (fried food) vendors, or bicitaxistas who pedal twelve hours a day.
For several years Orlando was an anonymous dissident. It’s possible to investigate how his personal political transition started and when, openly and publicly, he began to desire a collection of freedoms for all citizens.
Zapata was similar to the front balcony neighbor that criticizes the state of affairs in the country. A desperate man of the street who doesn’t see a way, since constitutionally it doesn’t exist, to move Cuba on a democratic path.
There are many on the island like Zapata. Or in Cairo. Ideally this mulatto, who died at age 42, could be shouting slogans in Liberation Square. Or be Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old who set himself on fire in a Tunisian town far from the tourist brochures.
A memory comes to me of a chat I had on a cold night in February 2010 with one of his Republican Alternative Movement friends. He described to me those days, when unhappy with the arbitrary laws of the government that had imprisoned 75 dissidents in March of 2003, they left the Estadio Latinoamericano and, without a leader to exhort them, they marched from the baseball debating club in Parque Central along the streets, protesting the arrests.
And of course, I remember a short and sturdy opponent, who had suffered in prisons and hidden her emotions like everyone else, crying in silence in the living room of her house, remembering the young man, quiet, almost invisible, who was together with her on a fast, days before the raid of 2003.
I cannot forget the giant that is Reina Luisa Tamayo, his mother, who will not see Orlando, with his duffel bag in tow, coming down the alley of the poor neighborhood section of Banes where she lives.
A year after his death the message of Zapata Tamayo has force. It was precisely his death which led to a series of marches heard through the streets of Havana by the Ladies in White, shouting “Zapata lives.”
The repercussion and global condemnation over his death forced General Raul Castro’s government to negotiate a solution with the Catholic Church. If today a majority of the Black Spring dissidents can walk freely through the streets of Spain, Chile, the United States, or Cuba, it is thanks to this forceful weapon that was the death of Zapata.
A death that could have been prevented. Due to arrogance the regime did not stop it. They gained nothing. A maxim which every statesman must remember is that they should never use the relentless forces of power against an individual, healthy or dying.
It is not about ideology. It is a matter of humanity. The government of Cuba would gain credibility if, at one year after the death of Zapata, they would apologize publicly. Out of respect and decency they owe it to his mother, so shamefully harassed.
Reina Luisa will never recover her son. But it might be an initiation of the unavoidable dialogue that Cuba needs. The Castros should use leniency as a shield. It would be a way to atone for their faults. And believe me, they need it.
Translated by DoDi 2.0
February 24 2011
An event of such magnitude always leaves its mark. The death of Orlanado Zapata Tamayo, at the age of 42, is indelibly engraved on my memory.
In the afternoon of 23 February 2010 I was at the home of the independent lawyer and journalist Laritza Diversent, reviewing some legal cases which might be of journalistic interest.
I already knew about Zapata’s hunger strike. About the physical abuse he had suffered. About the reports that spoke of his rapidly deteriorating health, after more than 80 days without food.
My mobile phone didn’t stop ringing. On the 20th of February, three days before his death, I got a text message from another informant, letting me know that Reina Luisa Tamayo, his mother, had been summoned urgently to Section 21 of Cuban Intelligence. They wanted her to talk to her son to get him to give up the hunger strike.
The sequence of events was very rapid. That Tuesday, while I was discussing work matters with Laritza, I received a deeply moving text. It was from the blogger Claudia Cadelo. She said that at 3:27 in the afternoon, in the hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras, Orlando Zapata had died.
Laritza and I were dumbstruck. Then, everything happened very quickly, like scenes from a video clip. I tried to get a plane ticket for Banes, a town in the province of Holguín, more than 700kms from Havana.
José Martí airport appeared to be under siege. A foreign journalist told me that he had not even been able to get a ticket by bribery. Incredible for Cuba. Politely, the woman at the information desk gave out that there would be no tickets for Holguín for a week.
An airport worker called me to one side and told me in a whisper, “Brother, this is a tough one. You won’t get a ticket for a thousand dollars. Some guys from Security said that if you get on a plane, all of us who work this shift will be sacked.”
I tried to get a bus ticket, I worked out that the journey would take 14 hours, but I couldn’t manage that either. All the options were closed.
I don’t want to be self-important and imagine that Security was responsible for my not being able to get to Banes. The opposition leader Martha Beatriz Roque, and Laura Pollán one of the leading members of the Damas de Blanco, hired a car to Holguín, but when I called Martha, they had already left.
I felt beaten. As a journalist I couldn’t get the latest news out. And as a man, I wanted to be at his family’s side at that terrible time.
Walking through the city with Laritza, we met the independent journalist Jorge Olivera, one of the 75 dissidents jailed in the spring of 2003. Olivera told us stories about Zapata, they were together in some godforsaken prison, and he said that at Laura Pollán’s house, on Neptune Street, a book of condolences had been opened.
It was almost twelve midnight when we reached the house, headquarters of the Damas de Blanco. Next to a Cuban flag and a photo of Orlando, around twenty people were gathered in the small room.
There we spoke with members of the movement that Zapata belonged to. Outside the house we could see the political police.
When I arrived home at about 4 in the morning I was nearly exhausted. Before I was overtaken by sleep, I went over the notes I had taken that day about Orlando Zapata Tamayo. We had a great deal in common. Our love of baseball, and our race. I wish I had known him.
Photos: Laritza Diversent. Symbolic vigil at Laura Pollán’s house, 23rd and 24th February 2010.
Translated by: Jack Gibbard
February 24 2011