The Death That Changed Our Lives

Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in February of 2010 after a long hunger strike. (Screen capture)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 22 February 2020 — The phone rang with a distant sound, as if it were at the end of a long hallway. I responded and the voice on the other end spoke of death, a hunger strike, and prison and mentioned a name I had never heard. On February 23, 2010, Orlando Zapata Tamayo died, after 86 days without eating, and his death led to one of the most painful and fruitful moments in Cuba’s recent history.

There was a time when news traveled slowly, when we learned years later what had happened in our own country and just a few meters from our house. But that long era of secrecy and information darkness began to break down one day ten years ago, after the death of a man who refused to eat in protest of the conditions of his imprisonment.

Zapata was born in 1967, he worked as a bricklayer and at the time of his death he was little known. But he had already starred in several actions on the street and appeared in the book The Dissenters, which the ruling party had prepared to denigrate its opponents. When he stopped breathing, there were only a couple of public photos of him, but in a few days his face, with its sunken eyes and protruding cheekbones ,became familiar to millions of people inside and outside the Island.

“He was already dying when they authorized medical attention for him,” an opponent I called the same night asking for details told me. In 2010, there were still very few activists with cellphones and reconstructing the story of what had happened was very complicated. Not only did we have to deal with fear of police sources and cordons, but also with the difficulties in communicating.

Thus, I learned that the family was from Banes and that his mother had come to be with him in the ward of the Hermanos Ameijeiras hospital where he spent his last night. “The hospital is occupied by State Security and there is no way to get close,” said a human rights activist who had tried to get more details about the time of death and a possible funeral.

By that time, it was less than two years after the first Twitter accounts controlled by citizens had appeared in Cuba, and the fundamental way to get updates was through text-only messages. These were “blind messages” because it was only possible to broadcast content, but not to read replies or to retweet to third parties. Nevertheless, the little blue bird was the main way to get news from the island.

I remember that, on the same day Zapata died, State Security’s nervousness was very visible in the face of the effort that was winning the news cycle. The houses of several opposition leaders were surrounded by police operations and their telephone service was cut off. Obtaining information was increasingly difficult.

My husband, the journalist Reinaldo Escobar, and I decided to go to the Havana Institute of Legal Medicine, because we guessed that the body would be there. It was night and Rancho Boyeros Avenue had large areas without lighting, so we moved through the shadows. As we approached we saw a surveillance operation and pretended to be a couple seeking privacy. The trick worked and we took a sharp turn to the right to get closer to Legal Medicine.

There, under a dimly lit sign which barely allowed us to distinguish her face, was Reina Luisa Tamayo, the mother of the opponent. We had never met each other but pain has the ability to weave bonds and as soon as I asked her, she began to talk. In just a few minutes she would go to dress her son’s body and she was still in the phase of not believing she would never see him again. I took out my cell phone and asked her for a few words about what happened.

That brief message, filmed in daunting darkness, was the first direct testimony of what happened to Zapata Tamayo. Neither of us could imagine what that video was going to unleash. For it would be the beginning of a long road of grievances and denunciations, and, for me, a transcendental step in my journalistic work. “It was premeditated murder,” she said clearly that night and I still remember today the mixture of firmness and sadness in her words.

The mother, accompanied by one of her daughters, explained that her son had been locked in a cell in the prison when he declared a hunger strike, and that as a punishment they limited his water and when they finally authorized taking him to the hospital they already knew that little could be done. Nor had she even been able to say goodbye to him, because on that bed in intensive care was an inert and cold body.

We remained close to the mother’s side, and around us the police operation was narrowing while the  State Security  members were very upset because we had managed to outwit surveillance. The minutes that elapsed between that moment and when we managed to get out of there to publish that video have been among the longest of my life. We split our forces, and Reinaldo managed to attract the majority of the seguros – the agents – to follow him, while I slipped away through a small street near the Torrefactura Café factory.

An hour later, from a hotel internet connection, we were able to publish the images. In a few hours the text messages were coming and going from one mobile phone to another; everyone wanted more details and the protest was increasing. In the middle of that maelstrom, the first hashtag born inside the Island emerged and quickly went viral. It was the simple three letters #OZT, but it quickly turned into a tide of rejection

In the hours after Zapata’s death, one of the most inspiring processes of unity and cohesion of independent civil society I can remember occurred. Now, when criticism is exacerbated by the disunity of the opposition and the lack of common goals among civil society groups, it would not hurt to remember those momentous times when dissidents, independent journalists, bloggers and activists joined forces.

The official response was disproportionate. Massive arrests, the cutting off of phone services, and an intense campaign to kill the reputation of the deceased took place in the official media. With regards to Zapata, Cuban Television News said that he had a “long criminal history” and even transmitted a hidden camera recording of his mother inside the hospital, violating every ethical principle of privacy

Although the Cuban government insisted that Orlando Zapata Tamayo (2nd from right) was just a “criminal,” in the government issued book “The Dissidents” he was already mentioned as an opponent. (Screen Capture)

But, despite defamation and repressive acts, they could not prevent the news from shaking all of Cuba, nor several international organizations condemning what had happened, nor the main international media reporting the death, nor Orlando Zapata Tamayo becoming a point of confluence for the democratic forces.

There were days of social mourning and, at the same time, it was a small victory over the Communist Party because we managed to take away their monopoly on reporting about the life of the nation. Unlike the death of the student leader Pedro Luis Boitel, in 1972 after a hunger strike, Zapata’s death was reported with sufficient immediacy to provoke extensive repulsion. Months after his sacrifice, the process of releasing the prisoners of the Black Spring began.

Although the “official history” wanted to give credit for those releases to negotiations between the Vatican, the Spanish Government and the Plaza of the Revolution, in truth it was the death of the hunger striking opposition figure that put Castroism on the ropes. His death, together with the increase in protests by the Ladies in White in the weeks after that February, and the hunger strike of Guillermo Fariñas, resulted climate of outrage against the Cuban government it found untenable.

A decade has passed and although the lack of freedoms continues to mark daily life on this Island, that February 23rd of 2010 is undoubtedly the event from which we began a new stage. A man who refused to eat and used his own body as a weapon of protest changed the Cuba we knew and helped to transform us in the deepest part of our essence.


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