Orlando Zapata Tamayo died of respiratory failure in a Cuban hospital on February 23 after an 83 day hunger strike. Right-wing enemies of the Cuban revolution have jumped on this case to make propaganda against Cuba.

In the Wall Street Journal, columnist Maria Anastasia O’Grady, who is the house specialist in Cuba bashing, really went to town. She claimed, without citing sources, that Zapata’s death was due to deliberate mistreatment by authorities, and irrationally denounced Mexican President Felipe Calderon, one of the most right-wing leaders in Latin America today, for meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro at the hemispheric summit in Cancun while this was supposedly happening.

The UK based Economist magazine, which as the voice of the British financial oligarchy also is on a perpetual Cuba and Venezuela bashing tack, also jumped on the bandwagon, like much of the western media simply retailing the idea that Zapata had been jailed for dissident political activities and that his death had somehow been caused by mistreatment or neglect in prison.

Indeed, Zapata was listed as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. But there are some problems with this designation.

The Cuban government has put out background information on Zapata that calls into question several ideas that have been put into circulation by enemies of the Cuban Revolution.

In the first place, it says that Zapata was not jailed for political dissidence, but for a series of petty crimes and infractions against public order, including smacking someone over the head with a machete. His originally short sentence of 3 years was extended to 25 years when he assaulted prison guards, the Cuban report says.

Secondly, Zapata hooked up with political dissidents when already in jail, not before, and there is a suggestion that it was they who instigated him to begin the hunger strike which was ostensibly to protest conditions in the prison. His demands seem to have been rather advanced, including a stove, TV and cell phone in his prison cell. There are a group of about 70 people in jail in Cuba who claim that they are political prisoners, but Zapata was not one of them. The individuals in question had been given stiff jail terms, not for criticizing the government or opposing its policies, but for receiving some of the tens of millions of dollars that the U.S. government boasts of sending into Cuba surreptitiously every year to foster dissident political movements.

Finally, the Cuban government indignantly denies that the Cuban prison medical authorities “murdered” Zapata; in fact the Cuban government statement details the heroic efforts extended by government medical personnel to keep Zapata alive, including feeding through intravenous and nasal drips and other things. They cite the thanks that Zapata’s mother expressed to the prison medical personnel as their evidence.

Hunger strikes have been used for both good and bad causes, but they are dangerous tactics. To continue a hunger strike for 83 days approaches the suicidal, as the body begins to consume its own muscles and other structures to make up for the lack of nutriments, and eventually multiple organ failure ensues.

There are two stories here: One is of a person who, evidently misled by people who wanted to manipulate him for the purpose of political propaganda, starved himself to the point that he dies. The other is about how we in the United States and the other capitalist countries receive information about what goes on in Cuba. Information in these cases comes to U.S. corporate controlled media from a variety of sources: The dissident community in Miami and in Cuba, official Cuban government sources, and others. The instinctual reaction seems to be to simply retail what the dissidents are saying, on the theory that anything that the other side says must be a lie. It does not seem to occur to many of our journalists to check conflicting stories against each other for inherent logic, let alone to do some original investigation and talk to a variety of people involved in the situation.

This would be too much like actual journalism.

For a discussion on the case from the English language online pages of the Cuban daily newspaper go to Gramna.





Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.