Orlando Zapata Tamayo: The Extension of His Body / Luis Felipe Rojas

Archive Photo: The Ladies in White

It is now one year since the death in prison of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, His death from the effects of a prolonged hunger strike was widely reported by the international media. A year later the body of this young black man has provided an excuse to extend the repression to his brothers in the cause, to those who sympathized with him though they didn’t know him, and to a large number of people who have seen their neighborhoods surrounded by hordes of police encircling peaceful dissidents.

The fact that Zapata’s death came about through starvation is one more piece of the hunger we have endured for over half a century. I speak of the spiritual hunger for the lack of freedom and the other, which hurts in one’s own body. I speak of the lack of food for a people because of the government’s apathy and lack of actions to meet our minimum needs.

That is the paradox, that is the legacy. When millions of Cubans wrack their brains every day to find something to eat, a man without freedom such as Orlando Zapata Tamayo decides to starve to death rather than to continue being humiliated and severely beaten in prison, where he was.

The acts of being black, a dissident, and from eastern Cuba were other sentences that carried him to his final torture. Discriminated against because of the color of his skin, like thousands of Cubans in this era of “equalities,” he refused to believe in this veiled, but latent, apartheid.

Pro-government academics and intellectuals have made their thoughts known about racism in Cuba, on that there’s no doubt. A law approved in 1997 prohibits and regulates those from “the interior of the country” from taking up residence in “the capital of all Cubans,” and so his punishment was threefold.

One day in the summer of 2009, I was stationed in front of the Holguin provincial prison in solidarity with Zapata on one of his hunger strikes. Eight months later, on 3 February 2010, I marched with thirty dissidents through the streets of Camaguey, and was outside the hospital where the black Zapata lay dying in his penultimate battle. The arrests for when I have tried to reach his native Banes, the days when my house has been surrounded by hordes of plainclothes and uniformed police to keep me from leaving and which have required my son to undergo psychiatric treatment, are an extension of Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s body.
The metaphor of the body in the body of another is not a pennant, a medal worn as a trophy of war, it is the consequences of the dream of freedom.

Hundreds of arrests have occurred in the space of a year. But the attempt to publicly humiliate him, using all the mass media under the government’s control, has not been enough to silence this simple and civic act of planting oneself firmly in opposition to the dictator.

The rebellion of the Ladies in White, the hunger strike of Guillermo Farinas, the stubborn decision of hundreds of Cubans to seek freedom, have proved that his death was not in vain. The clumsiness of the authorities in blocking those who want to go to Banes, to freely visit the cemetery, a place of national pilgrimage, is part of the extension of the body of Orlando Zapata Tamayo who is all of us.

23 February 2011