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
In theory, to live under communism should be a nice little number for Cubans. As money doesn’t exist, you don’t have to pay bills for rent, electricity, water or the phone. If we had internet connections, they would be free, too.
If you’re hungry, you go to the supermarket and fill a trolley with groceries. No check-outs or security cameras. If you get tired of your old American car, you pop down to the showroom and swap it for a Russian or Chinese model.
In practice, the idyllic communist society that we’ve had to listen to them banging on about for half a century is completely crazy. And unsustainable. An incredible dogma. A trap to catch out the gullible.
Religions involve individuals. But the worst thing about the theories of Karl Marx is that they involve the society as a whole and condemn it co-exist with dictators, tyrants and patriarchs who, with a firm hand, are meant to lead us to a system in which everything is free. Quite a tale!
The reality is very different. To achieve unanimity, laws are made which send those who disagree to prison. Parties with other shades of ideology are forbidden. And those who defend the Western lifestyle are contemptuously called ‘unpatriotic’.
In closed regimes, the clever people insist that socialism, the prelude to communism, is better than capitalism. So far no one has been able to prove this. Look at the case of Cuba. An island with an unstable economy that lives like a beggar, going cap-in-hand around the world.
The worst thing is that after 50 years of deprivation the local ideologues tell us that with the new policies of sackings, private enterprise and the removal of state subsidies, now, really, truly, we are going to start… the construction of socialism!
A bad joke. The US embargo of Cuba is no excuse for the fact that fruit and vegetables have disappeared in this country. That the fields are filled with the invasive marabou weed [Dichrostachys cinerea- a plague in Cuba]. That the cows give little milk and the hens have gone on strike.
The leaders in Cuba survive with the millions sent back home by emigrants and with the dollars and euros spent by the capitalist tourists. With this ‘enemy’ money they want to build their communist utopia.
They’re stubborn. Not even the example of the late USSR — which fell after 74 years of gross stupidity and brought the Berlin Wall down with it — makes them doubt Marxism.
Translated by: Jack Gibbard
On the overcast morning of September 28, the historic leader was in his favourite environment. Public events. The adulation of the masses. His natural state. It is in big gatherings where Castro has given speeches of up to 14 hours, true Guinness records, and where he whipped them up into a state of delirium.
The 50th anniversary of the CDR (the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution), an organization he founded, on the 28th September 1960, on returning from a 10 day trip to New York, where he had attended the 15th group of sessions of the General Assembly of the United Nations, was a date that the old warrior could not let pass unmarked.
The CDR is one of his monsters. Created originally to keep an eye on people labelled “worms and counter-revolutionaries”, it has lasted five decades. As well as having a social function, its prime purpose is still the same: to watch out for dissidents.
The balcony was installed in the old Presidential Palace, today the Museum of the Revolution, 300 m from the Havana promenade, on one side of the Spanish Embassy. Castro spoke after the national coordinator of the CDR, Juan José Rabiloero, had read an inflammatory text in which he warned that the “counter-revolution would not be allowed to take over the street, squares and parks”, in a veiled threat to the Damas de Blanco.
Beforehand, the singer of the moment on the island, Haila María Mompié, sang one of her hits, and as she finished, she wished him good health, said she loved him, and kissed him. Then the aged leader, in his trademark clothes — the olive green jacket and starred cap — read for 42 minutes excerpts of the speech given 50 years ago on the same spot.
Seeing that the heat was not overpowering, Castro spoke on what has become one of his favourite subjects, the possibility of nuclear war. Local observers had hoped the occasion would be an opportunity for a U-turn in his political discourse.
Up until now his public appearances have always been about international matters. Some predicted he might speak about the failure of parliamentary elections in Venezuela, or about the new economic reforms already under way, which require a great sacrifice for the average Cuban, with a million workers unemployed and high taxes for the self-employed.
But it was not to be. In this, his second outdoor appearance, he went on raving about things that were of no interest to Cubans who have only coffee for breakfast and eat one hot meal a day. Those who hoped for a dynamic Castro were disappointed.
For the sole Commander the harsh reality of the country is an insignificant matter. Somebody else’s problem. He holds himself to be above right and wrong. And that’s how he behaves.
Translated by: Jack Gibbard
When, on the 6th of September, more than two million children, teenagers and adults began the new school year in Cuba, for their parents it meant yet another problem.
The youngest of them carry schoolbags weighed down with water, buns, sweets and soda. And even food. They look like mountain climbers. As the mid-morning snack and lunch given to primary children is usually little more than garbage, their parents have to spend a considerable part of their salaries buying food for them.
Those who have hard currency can give them something fairly substantial. Bread and tuna, ham or pork. Natural fruit juice and yoghurt. The ones who really suffer are those who receive a salary in pesos, and struggle to make ends meet.
Carmen knows this well. She’s divorced and has three children of 6, 9 and 12. “Their father is a worthless type. He’s never bothered about his children. I don’t have enough money. Every day is a problem. I make them bread with catfish dumplings, but they’ve had them so many times that now they can’t stand them. If I have eggs I make them omelette. To drink there is only squash or sugared water. Sometimes they have nothing”, says Carmen, clearly stressed.
School uniform is another problem. The disgusting state bureaucrats have decided to provide one uniform per child every two years. Just imagine. Many children grow quickly and can’t wear the uniform the following year. Their parents have two choices. Either they buy one on the black market, at 5 convertible pesos (6 dollars, half the minimum wage in Cuba) or they go to school without a uniform.
The other major complaint of parents with children in primary and secondary schools is the standard of the teachers. Their training is abysmal. They are usually young people between 16 and 20 without adequate knowledge or a vocation to teaching.
This means that some families have to pay extra money. There are parents who choose to pay private teachers. And for 15 or 20 dollars a month they reinforce the learning of their children.
Technology and pre-University students are a little better off, as they have older, more experienced teachers. And now they aren’t sent a long way from home, where they had to work on the land and the food was scarce.
The level of education in Cuba is very low. It is fallen alarmingly in recent years. If you are in any doubt about this, ask our teenagers and young people about history, politics or culture and you’ll be surprised by the high level of ignorance. To this ignorance must be added the poor and inappropriate use of the Spanish language.
Fidel Castro can still be very proud of education in Cuba with its more than a million University graduates. This is worthy of high praise.
But we’re going downhill fast. Many people are trying hard not to notice that the showcase of the revolution is beginning to show cracks.
Translated by: Jack Gibbard