Canadians vacationing in Cuba may be too busy sipping mojitos and frolicking in the ocean to consider last week's tragic death of a Cuban political prisoner. But it is a powerful reminder of the island's repressive underbelly, and illustrates the Cuban government's continued and blatant disregard for human rights and civil liberties.
Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a 42-year-old carpenter and plumber, stopped eating Dec. 3 to protest the conditions of his detention, and died in a hospital in Havana last Tuesday. He is the first political prisoner to starve himself to death since 1972, when Pedro Luis Boitel, a student leader and poet, suffered the same fatal end.
Mr. Zapata was detained in a 2003 crackdown known as "Black Spring", alongside 75 other opposition activists, who advocate peaceful political change but are seen by the Cuban government as U.S. mercenaries. He was initially jailed for three years for "disrespecting authority"; however, this sentence was increased to 25 years in subsequent trials, after he was charged with disobedience and disorder in a penal establishment.
Amnesty International called Mr. Zapata's death a "terrible illustration of the despair facing prisoners of conscience who see no hope of being freed from their unfair and prolonged incarceration." The human rights group called for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience, and said a full investigation must be carried out to establish whether ill treatment played a role in the case of Mr. Zapata.
Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, and officials from the European Union also condemned Mr. Zapata's death, with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero calling for the release of all political prisoners. Reina Luisa Tamayo accused the Cuban government of murdering her son.
Raul Castro, the Cuban president, took the unusual step of expressing public regret for Mr. Zapata's death. But he used the occasion not to announce a political opening, but to deny that the deceased was mistreated and to attack the U.S. The only torture taking place on the island, Mr. Castro said, is at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, where terror suspects are held.
It is clear that he does not intend to heed the international demand to free all dissidents, or to permit peaceful opposition voices in this country of 11 million.
In fact, Mr. Zapata's death provoked another act of repression, with dozens of his supporters locked up last week to prevent them from attending his funeral in Banes, his home town in the east.
Cuba's opposition believes, however, that the tragedy will galvanize resistance against the government. "I think there is going to be a 'before' and an 'after' in the murder of Tamayo," said Marta Beatriz Roque, a Havana dissident also jailed in 2003 and later released for health reasons.
Historically, the Cuban dissident movement has been weak and fraught with internal conflict. Government control of all media - and the limited access Cubans have to the Internet -has made it difficult for opposition groups to mobilize.
But the movement may find strength and unity from Mr. Zapata's decision to starve himself to death. On Friday, five dissidents, four behind bars, announced they had begun hunger strikes aimed at forcing the government to free all political prisoners. Mr. Zapata was a poor, black man from the countryside - the very sector of society the Cuban Revolution was supposed to help.
As Canadians book their all-inclusive Veradero getaways this March break they would do well to remember that for many, Cuba is no island paradise.