Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva denied on Wednesday, in Havana, that he had received a letter from Cuban dissidents asking him to intervene in the case of plumber Orlando Zapata, who died in prison on Tuesday after 85 days on hunger strike.
“If they are dissidents of Cuba and now want to be dissidents of Lula I see no problem. People need to stop writing letters, keep them to themselves and then saying they sent them to other,” said Lula after meeting with his Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro and his brother, Fidel.
“Someone would only be able to say that he sent a letter to the president if the letter was filed and recorded. Actually I didn’t get any letter. If someone had asked me to talk I would have talked. We do not refuse to talk,” the president added.
Lula said he regretted Zapata’s death: “We have to regret, as a human being, someone who has died, who decided to go on a hunger strike, which you know I’m against because I’ve done it myself,” he stated in a reference to his own hunger strike when in prison during the military dictatorship (1964-1985).
Cuban dissidents talked about their disappointment with Lula. The leader of the Christian Liberation Movement Said Payá, leader of Christian Liberation Movement called Lula complicit in human rights violations in Cuba:
“We respect and love the Brazilian people, but the Lula government had no word of solidarity to human rights in Cuba. He has been a real accomplice of human rights violations in Cuba,” Payá said adding: “We do not expect and do not want to expect anything from him.”
Payá, one of the main voices of the Cuban dissident movement. He was awarded the Sajarov prize from the European Parliament in 2002.
As in the three previous official visits to Cuba, Lula did not meet with the opposition during this trip. In January 2008, Payá also criticized Lula for meeting only with members of the government. At the time, he said that Lula, by supporting the former dictator Fidel Castro, denies the Cuban people the democratic values he defends in Brazil.
A little earlier and in the presence of Lula, Raúl Castro like the Brazilian president lamented the death of Zapata. The Cuban leader said Zapata’s death is “the result of the relationship with the United States” and said there’s no torture in the island. Torture, he stated, is practiced in Guantanamo by the Americans.
“We are very sorry,” said Raúl. “He was sentenced to three years and had problems in prison. He was taken to our best hospitals, but died. We are very sorry” he said. “This is due to the confrontation we have with the US, we have lost thousands of Cubans.”
Security agents from Cuba detained dissidents across the country to prevent protests at the funeral of Zapata, a leading dissident whose death has sparked international indignation. Zapata, 42, was buried in his hometown of Banes, 830 kilometers east of Havana.
Mr Zapata’s mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, says her son’s death was a “premeditated murder. My son was tortured the whole time he was in prison,” she said.
“I call on the international community to demand the release of the rest of the [political] prisoners … so that what happened to my boy does not happen again,” Ms Tamayo said.
Mr Zapata’s death 85 days into a hunger strike over prison conditions drew international condemnation and calls for an investigation and the release of all political prisoners.
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation spokesman Elizardo Sanchez said security agents detained about 30 activists Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Some also have been held in their houses, without a judicial warrant, to prevent people from going to the wake,” he said.
“[Mr Zapata’s death] is bad news for the human rights movement and for the government as well,” Mr Sanchez said.
A Havana Hermanos Ameijeiras hospital spokesman says Mr Zapata died at 1:00 pm (local time) on Tuesday after a nearly three-month protest against prison conditions.
He had been in jail since 2003 and blamed his already deteriorating health on harsh conditions inside Cuba’s jails. Zapata was transferred from a local clinic in the eastern province of Camaguey, near his prison, to Havana’s largest hospital on Monday.
Amnesty International urged President Castro to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience.
“The tragic death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo is a terrible illustration of the despair facing prisoners of conscience who see no hope of being freed from their unfair and prolonged incarceration,” said Gerardo Ducos, Amnesty International’s Caribbean researcher. “A full investigation must be carried out to establish whether ill-treatment may have played a part in his death.”
According to AI, Zapata Tamayo was arrested in March 2003 and in May 2004 he was sentenced to three years in prison for “disrespect”, “public disorder” and “resistance”. He was subsequently tried several times on further charges of “disobedience” and “disorder in a penal establishment”, the last time in May 2009, and was serving a total sentence of 36 years at the time of his death.
“Faced with a prolonged prison sentence, the fact that Orlando Zapata Tamayo felt he had no other avenue available to him but to starve himself in protest is a terrible indictment of the continuing repression of political dissidents in Cuba,” said Gerardo Ducos
“The death of Orlando Zapata also underlines the urgent need for Cuba to invite international human rights experts to visit the country to verify respect for human rights, in particular obligations in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Orlando Zapata Tamayo was one of 55 prisoners of conscience who have been adopted by Amnesty International in Cuba.