On the afternoon of February 27th, Havana looked run-down. A persistent rain engulfed the worn out streets of the Santo Suarez neighborhood with mud. The sky, with its rat-like color, added a sad touch to the city.
Around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Laritza and I arrived to the house of the house of the opposition figure Martha Beatriz Roque Cabella, a 64-year-old economist, and a woman with a chubby face and with deep bags under her eyes. Roque Cabella lives in a narrow inner corridor. Right in front of her door, agents from the political police have placed a large drawing of Fidel Castro, embedded into a grayish wall which has been deteriorating with time.
The veteran dissident received us in her small living room. She is one of the most active voices for change in Cuba. She has had to pay a high price for choosing to oppose the Castro government. She has lived through innumerable detentions and abuses. On two occasions she was even condemned to long years in prison.
The last time she “visited” the woman’s jail called Manto Negro, in the town of Guatao, was actually the 20th of March 2003, during the so-called Black Spring. Through a medical parole, thanks to a string of illnesses and the pressure of the civilized world, the Castro regime was forced give in and free her.
“I am drained from my exhausting trip to Banes, where I attended the burial of Orlando Zapata Tamayo — a trip in which I was 24 hours without sleep,” comments Martha, who is wearing a house dress the orange color of the mamoncillo fruit.
According to Roque Cabello, the town of Banes was completely taken over by State Security forces. “It looked like a military fort, there were dozens of high-ranking officials, fearful and alert. Reina Tamayo, the mother of the dissident who lost his life due to a prolonged hunger strike, resides in a poor concrete hut. Walking in the streets filled with patches of misery was almost an adventure.”
She continued to explain to us, “There was a chain of soldiers and members of the political police. There was a tense atmosphere, one could slice it with a knife. In her living room, the body of Tamayo resided, along with a group of dissidents and the Ladies in White. We placed a flag in the coffin,” she recalls with a calm voice.
Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello half closes her eyes and meditates. “It was around the year 2002 when I first met Orlando Zapata Tamayo. He was a very humble guy, very respectful and disciplined. One had to extract words from him. On December 2002 he was detained simply for participating in an act of protest in the Lawton neighborhood — a protest organized by Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet.”
She adds: “During the first days of January 2003, almost on the eve of the Black Spring, he visited my house and acknowledged the personal support that I had given him, as well as our group, the Assembly to Promote Civil Society. Zapata had no desire to assume a leading role, he did not desire to leave his country — he was just a common brick layer who felt that his country needed changes immediately,” she says with vehemence.
Martha then answers a phone call and later returns to the dialogue. “In March of 2003 a group of dissidents of our organization initiated a hunger strike in the house of Marieta, the wife of the deceased dissident, Jesus Yanes Pelletier, in Humboldt, Vedado. Orlando Zapata Tamayo participated with us. I clearly remember that it was in that hunger strike where I held a full conversation with him and he told me about his miserable lifestyle, about his childhood which lacked material goods, and his dreams. He was a simple person with a very firm idea in his mind: that Cuba move towards democracy”, she says in a low voice.
One of the principal leaders of the Cuban dissidence, Martha continues telling us:
“On March 20th 2003, they detained Orlando along with 86 other dissidents. At first, the government of Fidel Castro detained that number of people and later, I suppose to round off the numbers and so the totals could match, in other words, 15 imprisoned dissidents for each one of the 5 spies jailed in the US, then he reduced the number of those arrested to 75. Zapata spent a few days in a cell. A few weeks afterward they let him go. Then, after a few days, during an act of protest in favor of the liberation of the 75 arrested dissidents, which he carried out in Havana’s Central Park, he was again detained and sentenced 3 years in prison for disrespect. Then he started his ordeal, the beginning of the end for this humble mestizo from Holguin.”
During the initial 3 years, because of different protests and complaints, they held various trials where they accused him of acting out in prison and his sentence was lengthened to 43 years. Later, the court combined a sanction and his sentence was reduced to years in prison. In all the jails where Orlando Tamayo Zapata stayed, he was tortured and brutally beaten by the prison authorities. I recall that in one of the trials they staged, he arrived with his mouth all bruised up, handcuffed, and with shackles on his feet. During his fateful hunger strike, the soldiers of the jails denied him water for 18 days…it wasn’t an accident or suicide…it was a crime,” an indignant Mara Beatriz declares.
She then grabs the Granma newspaper, dated February 27th, and with her fingers points out an article by the journalist, Enrique Ubieta:
“Besides lying without blushing, in his article there are many inconsistencies. To try to vilify Zapata Tamayo, he tries to fabricate a background of dangerous delinquency. Without a doubt, it is an obvious contradiction, for according to Ubieta, he was sentenced 3 times for supposed grave crimes in 2000, but already towards the end of 2001 he was free. If there is no bad blood, then Ubieta is lying and the crimes couldn’t have been so grave,” points out Marta.
And she adds that for the government of the Castros it is inadmissible for a person who has had common crimes on their record to have the right to demand political changes.
“In his protests, in the hunger strike he carried out for 86 days, Orlando only asked for decent food cooked by his mother, to have water, and the freedom of the political prisoners. It seems that for the government these demands were exaggerated. Then they would have to deal with the outpouring of protests throughout the world and the accusing finger of the world media. It is still too early to derive lessons from the death of Zapata Tamayo. At this time, 7 other prisoners of conscience have initiated their own hunger strikes and the journalist, Guillermo Farinas, who resides in the city of Santa Clara, a man whose body has already been debilitated by prior hunger strikes, if he and the others do not give up, the bad news could pile up for the regime,” finishes Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, who promises that the internal dissidency will not stand by with their arms crossed.
The government of the Castro brothers may think it has reason in saying that nothing needs change in Cuba, that everything marches along just fine, and that the people are happy. But it should be difficult to sleep with a peaceful conscience when, in their country, a man has lost his life simply for reclaiming a bunch of rights during the 7 years he was in jail.
The case is not about ideology, it is about humanity. At least that is what many Cubans on the island believe.
Ivan Garcia y Laritza Diversent
Photos: Martha Beatriz, to the right, honoring Orlando Zapata Tamayo next to his coffin, together with various Ladies in White.
Translated by Raul G.