Orlando Zapata Tamayo was serving a prison sentence of twenty-five years and six months when he starved himself to death on 23 February. He was originally sentenced to three years in prison, on charges of showing ‘contempt to the figure of Fidel Castro’, ‘public disorder’ and ‘resistance’, but this term was gradually increased during his detention. Protesting at his sentence and government abuses, Zapata became the first political prisoner in almost forty years to die on hunger strike in Cuba.
Zapata was among seventy-five Cuban dissidents who, in April 2003, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms under draconian laws. Most of them were accused of being financed and directed by the US Interests Section in Havana. All were tried under charges of acting against ‘the independence of the territorial integrity of the state’, for which the maximum penalty is death, or of ‘passing information to foreign organisations or media’. The crackdown became known as ‘Black Spring’.
Journalist, librarian and poet Ricardo Severino González Alfonso was sentenced at the same time to a twenty-year prison term. Now sixty, González originally worked as a scriptwriter for the state TV agency, before joining the independent news agency Cuba Press in 1995. Three years later, he established the independent Jorge Mañach Library, which specialises in journalism. In 2001, together with renowned poet Raúl Rivero, he set up the Manuel Márquez Sterling Journalists’ Society to train independent Cuban journalists. Many members were arrested, along with González and Rivero, during the crackdown. (Rivero was released in 2004 and currently lives in exile in Spain.)
González was also director of the now defunct bimonthly magazine De Cuba, which tackled subjects such as racism in Cuba and the Varela Project, a grassroots campaign aimed at promoting democratic and human rights reform in Cuba. Named after Félix Varela, a nineteenth-century Cuban priest who called for Cuba’s independence from Spain, the Varela Project began campaigning in 2001. Led by Christian democrat Oswaldo Payá, it was inspired by a little-known provision in the Cuban Constitution that allows citizens to propose a referendum on changes in law, if the signatures of at least 10,000 registered voters have been collected. The Varela Project proposed five reforms: democratic elections, free speech, free enterprise, free assembly and an amnesty for political prisoners. In May 2002, the organisers delivered more than 11,000 signatures to the National Assembly. Many of the writers and journalists arrested in the 2003 crackdown were signatories.
Prison conditions in Cuba are harsh. Prisoners of conscience are frequently locked up with common law prisoners, who are considered very dangerous. González has reportedly suffered numerous health problems since his imprisonment, including hypertension, arthritis, a heart condition, chronic bronchitis, and digestive and circulatory problems. He is understood to have had four operations and also to have spent some time in a prison psychiatric ward in 2005. González was hospitalised from September 2007 to January 2008. He was reportedly denied treatment on several occasions in 2008, and was refused the medicine he had been prescribed for his heart condition.
News on prisoners in Cuba is sporadic. PEN learned that for some months González shared a cell with thirty-six other prisoners which had reportedly flooded on several occasions, worsening the already unsanitary conditions. In January 2009, González’s wife reported that her husband had been denied telephone contact with his children after being awarded the Reporters Without Borders Journalist of the Year prize in December 2008 for ‘helping an independent press to survive in Cuba’. Two months later he was reportedly moved to solitary confinement.
The writer has reportedly been granted a humanitarian visa to travel to Costa Rica, but the Cuban authorities have refused to allow him to leave the island.
At the time of writing, the life of another Cuban dissident hangs in the balance. Guillermo Fariñas, a 48-year-old psychologist and journalist, went on hunger strike the day after Zapata died. He is seeking the release of twenty-six political prisoners who are in need of medical treatment. Fariñas is in a critical condition after losing consciousness in his third week of fasting. In response, former political prisoner Felix Bonne Carcassés, aged seventy, previously a member of the dissident Democratic Cuban Alliance, has pledged to start his own hunger strike should Fariñas die.
Readers might like to send appeals requesting that Ricardo Severino González Alfonso and all other political prisoners requiring medical treatment be released on humanitarian grounds and allowed to leave the island, should they so desire.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency René Juan Mujica Cantelar
167 High Holborn
London WC1V 6PA
Fax: 020 7836 2602