Tension on anniversary of hunger striker's death

HAVANA, Cuba, Monday February 28, 2011 (By Dalia Acosta) – The first anniversary of the death of Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata, after an 85-day hunger strike, was marked by the usual tensions between internal dissident sectors, supporters of the government of President Raúl Castro, and Cuban authorities.

“It was a tense day, which does not bode well for relations between (this sector of) civil society and the Cuban government,” Manuel Cuesta Morúa, one of the dissidents temporarily detained on Wednesday when he attempted to take part in a memorial ceremony in honour of Zapata, told IPS. 

Zapata, a 42-year-old Afro-Cuban mason and plumber, died on Feb. 23, 2010 after refusing food for nearly three months in the prison where he began serving an initial sentence of three years in 2003, for contempt of authority, public disorder, and disobedience. 

But his defiance of prison authorities and protests against the conditions in which he was held drew heavy additional sentences. 

According to Cuesta Morúa, spokesman for the Arco Progresista Party (PARP), a dissident group, there must have been over 100 people detained at police stations or confined to their homes Wednesday, some of whom were still under arrest Thursday. The day “ended badly,” but demonstrated “unprecedented unity” among opposition groups, he said. 

Elizardo Sánchez, the head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), another illegal but tolerated dissident organisation, estimated the number of those actually arrested by security forces at around 50. 

Some 200 government supporters gathered in front of a house in central Havana, shouting pro-government slogans in an attempt to prevent any public tribute to Zapata by the Ladies in White. 

These women are the wives, daughters and other relatives of 75 dissidents who were accused of conspiring with the United States against Cuba in 2003 and sentenced to long prison terms, most of whom have by now been released. They held a “prayer vigil” for several hours in memory of Zapata. 

However, they were unable to carry out a march through the streets of Havana, as planned. 

“They can do whatever they like in their own homes, but the streets here belong to the revolutionaries,” 54-year-old Carlos Valdés, told IPS. He admitted to taking part in previous confrontations of this kind, some of them marred by episodes of violence, 

The Cuban government and its supporters regard opposition groups as “mercenaries” in the pay of the United States that serve its hostile policies against the island, and consider that they only exist because of Washington’s logistical and financial support. 

Among those taken briefly into custody Wednesday was dissident Guillermo Fariñas, a 49-year-old psychologist and journalist who went on hunger strike the day after Zapata’s death, and fasted for 135 days. 

His protest ended Jul. 8, 2010 with the announcement of the release of a group of political prisoners, as a result of dialogue at the highest level between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government. 

Fariñas’ mother, Alicia Hernández, told the press by telephone that her son had been arrested Wednesday afternoon, after shouting anti-government slogans from his rooftop terrace in an outlying neighbourhood of the Cuban city of Santa Clara, 276 kilometres east of Havana. 

Fariñas, the winner of the 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, awarded annually by the European Parliament, was taken to a police station after several hours of house arrest, Hernández said. 

In contrast, Zapata’s mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, told the press she and her entire family had walked together to her son’s grave in the cemetery of Banes, a town 820 kilometres east of the Cuban capital. At the family ceremony, participants laid flowers and sang the national anthem. 

Prior to the anniversary of Zapata’s death, the Catholic Church announced the government would release seven more prisoners, taking the total of those who have been freed to 71, of whom six have stayed in Cuba rather than be flown to Spain. 

Out of the original group of 75 political prisoners, arrested in the spring of 2003 at a time of acute tension between Cuba and the United States, 52 were still in prison in mid-2010, when Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega announced that agreement on a gradual release process had been reached with President Castro. 

“Six of this group are still in prison. Some of them want to go to the United States, and some wish to stay in Cuba,” Ortega said at the Feb. 21 opening of the Tenth International Seminar of the Dialogue with Cuba Programme, organised by the Archdiocese of Havana and the Catholic University of Eichstätt, Germany. 

The Cardinal, who is Archbishop of Havana, stressed that “there is a clear and formal promise by the Cuban government that all of the prisoners will be released.” 

Meanwhile, a communiqué from U.S. State Department spokesperson Philip J. Crowley Wednesday criticised harassment of human rights activists on the island, and urged the Castro government to free all political prisoners. 

The CCDHRN reported that as of Jan. 26, 2011 they had documented 105 persons who have been sentenced or are being tried for political reasons. In January 2010 the organisation said there were 201 political prisoners, and in June 2010, 167.(IPS)

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