Commentary: Against the hijacking of a Cuban martyr

Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a young poor black Cuban worker, died on Tuesday after an 86-day hunger strike to protest the brutality he had endured in prison.

Since 2003 he had been a political prisoner in a detention facility deep in Cuba's interior. Zapata was the first black Cuban dissident during Fidel Castro's 50-year regime to surrender his life to protest racial oppression, the denial of civil and human rights, and political disenfranchisement.

"My son was murdered because of his black skin," sobbed his mother upon learning the news. The question is why did the Cuban authorities allow this man to die, precisely at a time when so many voices worldwide have been raised to condemn the racial conditions prevalent on the island?

Arrested for his open political activities, Zapata was accused of "public disorder," "resisting arrest" and "disturbing the peace." He was sentenced to three years in prison. But while serving that sentence, he was charged with "rebellion" and sentenced anew to a total of 36 years. This may seem incredible to most, but not so in Cuba especially, if your skin is black.

Black Cuban detainees have long complained of being subjected to different treatment where they are humiliated, frequently beaten and denied amenities available to white inmates. An estimated 85 percent of Cuban's prison population is black, and of the approximately 200 political prisoners, 60 percent are said to be black. Racism in Cuba pursues you even behind bars.

Zapata, a bricklayer by trade, did not accept the beatings, the humiliation, and the different racial treatment. After a severe assault by guards that almost left him dead, he started his hunger strike on Dec. 3, 2009, in the prison of Olguín, in Eastern Cuba. This was exactly two days after scholars, artists and intellectuals of the black world issued an important statement protesting racial conditions and human rights abuses on the island.

Zapata's determination to have his humanity respected, and to die if need be for it, signals a major shift taking place inside Cuba that is redefining the face of political opposition on the island.

For the last 25 years, a new force has been on the rise, growing not solely in numbers, but in complexity, pushing the issues of race discrimination, racism and sexism to the forefront of the struggle for a non-violent change. These new forces seem to have caught off guard both the Castro regime and the overwhelmingly white, right-wing external opposition. Both have been forced to scramble to reassert control over those whom they once considered their exclusive political constituencies — Cuban blacks.

It is this new configuration of the opposition in Cuba that has provoked selective anger by Cuba's rulers. Civil rights activists are quick to point to the case of black Communist leader Juán Carlos Robinson, a former provincial Secretary of the Communist Party now serving a 12-year jail sentence after being accused in 2006 of the same wrongdoings — corruption — for which former foreign minister, Roberto Robaina, who is white, was arrested in 2002 but placed under house arrest.

Why the different treatment?

Civil rights activists also point to the executions in 2003 of Jorge Luis Martinez Isaac, Lorenzo Enrique Copello Castillo and Barbaro Leodán Sevilla García — three young black men who hijacked a ferryboat in an attempt to flee Cuba. That two of them were veterans of the war in Angola, did not stop the regime from executing them as "terrorists" within 48 hours of their recapture. It was the first time the Castro government had executed anyone for hijacking. The reason, civil rights activists believe, is the color of their skin.

"The authorities do not forgive those it considers as runaway Negroes," the activists explain. By executing the young blacks, they believe, the regime was sending a coded message to the entire Afro-Cuban population that dissent, let alone opposition, would not be tolerated especially from blacks. Activists point to Cuba's aggressive racial profiling practices as a major reasons for an over-representation of blacks in the prison population.

But understanding why the Cuban authorities allowed Zapata to carry out his hunger strike until its ultimate consequences, requires an explanation from the other side of the coin — the reaction of the predominantly white so-called "exiled" anti-Castro opposition in the United States. These groups clearly stand to score political points from the case of a black martyr.

We expect righteous declarations by U.S.-based, right-wing organizations such as Democracy Movement, led by Ramon Saúl Sanchez; the Cuban American National Foundation, led by Pepe Hernandez and Jorge Mas Santos; and especially the Cuban Democratic Directorate, led by Orlando Gutierrez, and the Cuban Liberty Council, led by Ninoska Pérez Castellón. All of these groups are working to corral and control the new oppositional forces inside Cuba, but one suspects their agenda is to pursue the aspirations and interests of Cuba's overthrown former oligarchy, whose rule was based precisely on Jim Crow.

That's why the crocodile tears shed by U.S. Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, far from being a champion of Cuban racial equality, over Zapata's death are a farce.

Certainly, I do not claim to speak on behalf of Cuba's majority. But I am surely not far from that majority's truth by stating that it can hardly be struggling for the re-empowerment of the tiny, white elite of wealth that was overthrown in 1959. It is that segregationist exiled elite that these so-called anti-Castro groups so distinctly represent.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo is dead. He is now a people's martyr. But those who struggled with him and shared his aspirations must not allow this brave and principled man's legacy or memory to be hijacked; certainly not by those who before 1959 despised him for being black and continue to do so in spite of their hypocritical tears.

Zapata's legacy belongs to Cuba's future, and not to that of its neo-colonial, segregationist and subservient past.


Ethnologist and political scientist Carlos Moore is the author of the newly released, Pichón: Race and Revolution in Castro's Cuba (Lawrence Hill Books, 2008). Moore is an honorary research fellow in the University off the West Indies School for Graduate Studies and Research in Kingston, Jamaica.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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