An unfashionable cause


The death last week of Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo saddened me for many reasons. First, it saddened me because a brave, honest man died—some say premeditatedly murdered. It saddened me, although it didn’t surprise me, because it showed the extremes to which the Cuban government is willing to go to hold on to power—if a 42-year-old plumber must be beaten up, locked in a cell with no drinking water for 18 consecutive days and refused medical attention almost until the eighty-fifth day of his hunger strike, when he finally died, then so be it.

Above all, Mr. Tamayo’s death saddened me because the world doesn’t care.

True, Mr. Tamayo has been written up in The New York Times and in other papers. Amnesty International deplored his death. Several dignitaries publicly condemned it (with varying degrees of outrage). Overall, more people worldwide know of his death than the last time a Cuban political prisoner was allowed to starve. His name was Pedro Luis Boitel and he was a student leader and poet. When he died in a cell in 1972, months went by before the world learned of him.

Such a change became possible due to several factors. First, the country has inevitably opened up to foreign scrutiny after it welcomed tourists and investment in 1990, when the Soviet subsidies stopped pouring in. Second, internal opposition to the regime has expanded and become more organized, partly thanks to access to the Internet and to mobile telephony. Though severely restricted and, for most Cubans, largely unaffordable, this access has still enabled a few activists to communicate more effectively and to spread news such as the death of Mr. Tamayo.

But for all the official reproof, most people don’t seem to care. They don’t seem to care because no one talks about it, because it’s barely been on TV and because the cause for freedom in Cuba is not a fashionable cause. After all, Cuba, by virtue of a masterful propaganda program, its sunny beaches and its contagious music, has managed to portray itself as a brave David standing up to the American Goliath, whose clumsy politics have made it easy for Fidel Castro to portray himself in such a holy way.

Unfortunately, this holy image still endures in many minds around the world,  despite ample evidence to a very different reality. Mr. Tamayo, for example, was originally jailed along with 75 dissidents, independent journalist and librarians  in what is known as Cuba’s 2003 Black Spring. He was also involved with the Varela Project, an initiative that sought to bring  democratic political reforms within Cuba such as the establishment of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free elections and freedom of religion. Neither Mr. Tamayo nor any of the Varela Project’s members ever attempted to use violence against the government, yet he was sentenced to 36 years in prison.

Many in Canada and on this campus spring to action as soon as anything similar happens—provided it happens in places that are in the spotlight. For example, had Mr. Tamayo died in a Guantanamo  Base cell, his name would be in everyone’s lips, his face in everyone’s memory—and rightly so.

Other brave Cubans languish in Cuban cells—some say 200 of them. Darsi Ferrer, director of the Juan Bruno Zayas Health and Human Rights Centre in Havana, is one of them. He now waits in a maximum security cell, lumped in with common prisoners, for a trial that no one knows when will happen.

Let’s do him a favour—let’s do the late Mr. Tamayo and the late Mr. Boitel and all these other brave women and men a favour. Let’s at least acknowledge they exist.