Orlando Zapata Tamayo, 42, was a Cuban laborer accused of disobeying authorities and sentenced to three years in jail, back in 2003. Due to his protests against the inhumane living conditions inside the prison, the was subsequently tried in several instances, until the total of his combined sentences went over 30 years in prison.
Amnesty International recognized as a prisoner of conscience, but Zapata died on February 23rd, 2010, after more than 80 days on hunger strike.
Even though he is not the first one to die for this, the fact calls for us to look back – one more time – and analyze the conditions where Cuban prisoners are being held and the deplorable state of human rights in Cuba.
Here, there are more than 200 political prisoners simply because they tried to exercised their internationally recognized rights, those that are limited or prohibited in “the most democratic nation of the world,” such as freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech is not a gift. According to Rosa Luxembourg, freedom of speech can never be anything else other than the freedom to think differently. And for that humanist who was Erasmus of Rotterdam, the intolerant human trend to try to impose our own ideas onto others was the original sin of our world.
In Cuba’s constitutional history, freedom of speech was first recognized by the Jimaguayu Constitution (1895) and explicitly in La Yaya Constitution (1897), as well as in both the Constitutions of 1901 and 1940. After the 1976 and 1992 Constitutions were approved the exercise of freedom of speech was criminalized when the goals of that exercise were against the principles of socialism and communism. This limitation clearly contradicts the line of thought and ideals of thousand of Cubans who lost their lives to achieve that higher ideal. Ignacio Agramonte, when presenting his thesis in Havana University’s School of Law, said: Ignorance, forgetfulness or apathy towards men’s given rights are the only causes of public disasters and government corruption. And Jose Marti, Cuba’s National Hero, summed it up in only one expression: “Respect for freedom and other people’s thoughts, even those coming from the most insignificant individual, is my fanaticism.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by the UN General Assembly in 1948 – with the active participation of a Cuban delegation – says, in its Article 19: Every individual has the right of freedom of opinion and expression; this rights consist in not being harassed due to his/her opinions; the right to investigate and receive information and opinion and the right to disseminate them; without limitation of border, using any form of communication.
This document has inspired more than 60 similar legal declarations internationally, such as: the European Convention of Human Rights (1950), the International Accords in Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), the American Convention on Human Rights (1969), the African Letter of Human and People’s Rights (1981), the Islamic Declaration of Human Rigths (1990), and the World Human Rights Conference, celebrated on June 1993 in Vienna, where 171 countries reiterated the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of those rights.
When you forcibly impose the line of thought of one party – which, as its name indicates, represent only one part of the society – then freedom of speech is subjugated and persecuted. That imposition mentioned by Jose Marti in Cuba’s Constitution is what lies behind Zapata’s death: “I want the first law of our Republic to be that Cubans fully honor men’s dignity.” A plain analysis of what happened, amid the logic indignation, reveals the following:
First of all, the international recognition of human rights as universal, indivisible, sacred and inalienable rights explained the number of protests coming from personalities, institutions and governments all over the word after Zapata’s death. Amnesty International condemned of the death, as did the recently elected president of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, and Spain’s Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, all of them calling for the release of all political prisoners and the respect to human rights on the island.
Second, Zapata’s death and the deteriorated health conditions of many of the prisoners, and the new hunger strikes demonstrate that the freedom of those Cuban in prison can not wait any longer. There are plenty of reasons: (1) human rights are one of mankind’s birthrights, therefore, their violation is a criminal attempt against a person’s dignity. (2) Also, the liberation – through a special license due to health reasons – of 22 of the 75 dissidents imprisoned during the Black Spring of 2003 nullify any reason to keep the others in jail under the same sentences. Finally, (3) that liberation would represent a significant step towards the complete adherence to the internationally recognized laws that are included in the UN Constitution and other international legal instruments.
Third, the recently adjourned Unity Conference of Latin America and the Caribbean, that took place in Mexico the same day that Zapata died, agreed to create a community for countries in the region – with the sole exceptions of the United Stated and Canada. There, the Cuban delegation, by led by the President of the State Council, Raul Castro, stated this new institution should respect the political system of each country. However, the problem is not the political system, but the lack of rights and fundamental freedoms. Cuba’s membership in that institution – without the prerequisite of a radical change in the deplorable state of human rights – would be such a flagrant contradiction that makes it completely unsustainable. The OAS’s Inter American Democratic Convention of 2001 states that the people of Latin America have a right to a democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote it and to defend it… “that a representative democracy becomes stronger and deeper when it has the permanent, ethic and responsible participation of citizens within the provided legal frame and according to the constitutional order. It is unthinkable that a new regional organization could compromise those aspects.
If the Cuban government wants to integrate to this or any other regional organization,it should take the only admissible road: the road to respect towards human rights and towards fundamental freedoms. This is its permanent debt with the Cuban people and a first step could be the ratification of the international accords that were signed on February 2008, but whose ratification is pending. The key word in today’s Cuba, even moreso after Orlando Zapata’s death, is HUMAN RIGHTS.
Translated by Mailyn Salabarria