On February 23, 2010, Cuban inmate Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after 83 days on hunger strike. He was 42. This is the first such incident since inmate Pedro Luis Boitel died in 1972 under similar conditions. The corporate media put the tragic incident on the front page and emphasized the plight of Cuban prisoners.1
Zapata’s dramatic exit sparked a global uproar. The Cuban prisoner’s case undeniably fosters sympathy and a sense of solidarity with this person who expressed his despair and malaise in prison carrying out his hunger strike to the ultimate consequence. The heartfelt emotion aroused by his case deserves respect. In contrast, the manipulation of Tamayo’s death and of the grief of his family and friends by the corporate media for political purposes violates the basic principles of journalistic ethics.
Zapata, Political Prisoner or Common Convict?
Since 2004, Amnesty International (AI) has considered him among Cuba’s 55 “prisoner of conscience.” In addition, it has noted that Zapata’s hunger strike was launched not only to protest his conditions of detention, but also to demand the impossible: a television, a personal kitchen, and a cell phone to call his family.2 Zapata was not exactly a model prisoner. According to Cuban authorities, he was guilty of several acts of violence during his incarceration, especially against the guards, leading to his conviction being increased to 25 years.3
Curiously AI has never mentioned the alleged political activities that landed Zapata in prison. The reason is relatively simple: Zapata never carried out any anti-government activities prior to incarceration. Instead, the organization recognizes that he was convicted in May 2004 and sentenced to three years of imprisonment for “disrespect,” “public disorder,” and “résistance.”4 This sentence is relatively minor compared to the sentences, ranging up to 28 years, that were handed down to the 75 opposition figures convicted in March 2003 of “having received funds or materials from the U.S. government to carry out activities that the authorities consider subversive and damaging to Cuba,” as recognized by AI, which is a serious crime in Cuba and any country in the world.5 Here AI cannot escape an obvious contradiction: on the one hand AI characterizes them as “prisoners of conscience” and on the other it admits they committed the serious crime of accepting “money or materials from the U.S. government.”
Unlike the 75, the Cuban government has never accused Zapata of accepting funds from a foreign power and has always considered him a common convict. Zapata had a serious criminal record. Since June 1990, he had been arrested and convicted several times for “disturbing the peace, two counts of fraud, public exhibitionism, injury and possession of non-firearm weapons.” In 2000, he fractured the skull of Leonardo Simon using a machete. His criminal record does not involve any political actions. It was only after his imprisonment that his mother, Reyna Luisa Tamayo, approached government opposition groups, and she has never been bothered by the authorities.6
The United States and the European Union declared their consternation and demanded the “release of political prisoners.” “We are deeply distressed by his death,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who denounced the oppression of political prisoners in Cuba. Brussels followed suit and demanded the “unconditional release of all political prisoners.” France’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero announced that “following his situation closely, we called for his release along with the other detainees whose health seemed particularly worrying.”7
Cuban President Raúl Castro “regretted” the death and responded to the uproar from Washington and Brussels by stating that “in half a century, we have not murdered anyone here, no one has been tortured, and there have been no extrajudicial executions. Well, here in Cuba there have been people tortured, but at the Guantanamo Naval Base,” in reference to the torture center under U.S. administration. “They say they want to hold talks with us and we are ready to discuss with the U.S. government all issues they want. I repeated it three times in Parliament, all, all, all. We will not accept discussions unless both parties enjoy absolute equality. They can investigate or ask any questions in Cuba, but we have the right to ask about all the problems of the United States.”8
During a visit to Cuba, Brazilian President Lula da Silva also declared his sympathy, but wished to highlight the double standards of the corporate media of Washington and Brussels recalling a sad reality: “I know about virtually all the hunger strikes that have taken place over the past 25 years in the world and many people have died on hunger strikes in many countries.”9 The media ignored the vast majority of those tragic cases and absolutely none received the media coverage that has been afforded this Cuban inmate.
By comparison, in France between January 1, 2010 and February24, 2010, there were 22 suicides in prison, including a 16-year-old boy. In 2009 there were 122 suicides in French prisons and 115 in 2008. State Secretary of Justice Jean-Marie Bockel declared his impotence in these situations: “When someone decides to commit suicide and is determined to do, whether they are free or in prison, [. . .] there is nothing you can do about it.” The families of those victims were not entitled to the same media treatment as Zapata, nor even an official public statement from the French government.10
We must put the Zapata’s case into perspective by looking at two much more serious situations deliberately ignored by the corporate media that clearly illustrate the politicization and manipulation of this ordinary incident that would pass unnoticed in most countries, except Cuba.
Since the coup in Honduras took place and the military dictatorship was established on June 27, 2009, led first by Roberto Micheletti and then since January 28, 2010 by Porfirio Lobo, there have been more than a hundred murders and countless cases of disappearances, torture, and violence. The abuses occur daily, but are carefully omitted by the corporate media. Thus, when Claudia Larissa Brizuela, a member of a group opposed to the coup, the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), was murdered on February 24, 2010, just one day after the death of Zapata, there was not a single word about it in the corporate press.11
A similar case further illustrates the duplicity of the corporate media. In December 2009 in La Macarena, Colombia the largest mass grave in the history of Latin America was discovered with no fewer than 2,000 bodies. According to testimonies collected by British MEPs on the ground in La Macarena, these were the bodies of union and peasant leaders killed by the paramilitaries and the Colombian army’s Special Forces. Jairo Ramirez, lawyer and secretary of the Standing Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Colombia, described the grisly scene: “What we saw was frightening. Countless corpses and hundreds of white wooden plaques inscribed with NN and with dates ranging from 2005 to the present. The army commander told us they were the bodies of guerrillas killed in combat, but the people of the region told us of the many community leaders, farmers, and community advocates who have disappeared without a trace.” Despite the many testimonies and the presence of the MEPs, despite a visit by a Spanish parliamentary delegation to investigate, no corporate media has given even a little attention to this news.12
The suicide of Orlando Zapata Tamayo is a tragedy and his mother’s pain must be respected. But there are unscrupulous people. The corporate media, Washington, and the European Union cares little about his death, just as they care little for the Hondurans and Colombians killed every day. Zapata is useful to them only in the media war against the Cuban government. When ideology is placed above objective information, truth and ethics are the first victims.
2 Amnesty International, “Death of Cuban Prisoner of Conscience on Hunger Strike Must Herald Change,” February 24, 2010 (accessed on February 28, 2010).
4 Amnesty International, op. cit.
5 Amnesty International, “Cuba. Cinq années de trop, le nouveau gouvernement doit libérer les dissidents emprisonnés,” March 18, 2008 (accessed on April 23, 2008).
8 Raúl Castro Ruz, “Declaraciones del Presidente de los Consejos de Estado y de Ministros Raúl Castro Ruz sobre el fallecimiento del recluso Orlando Zapata Tamayo,” February 24, 2010.
9 The Associated Press, “Washington Post cuestiona política de concesiones a Cuba,” February 26, 2010.
12 Antonio Albiñana, “Aparece en Colombia una fosa común con 2.000 cadáveres,” Público.es, February 26, 2010.
Salim Lamrani is a professor at Paris Descartes University and Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée University and journalist specializing in relations between Cuba and the US. He has just published Cuba: Ce que les médias ne vous diront jamais [Cuba: What the Media Will Never Tell You] (Paris: Editions Estrella, 2009). Contact: <firstname.lastname@example.org>. En español: “Cuba, los medios occidentales y el suicidio de Orlando Zapata Tamayo.”