It is with great sadness that we report the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a political prisoner in Cuba, whose passing was the culmination of a hunger strike he started nearly three months ago.
Had his captors released him, as they provided medical paroles for other prisoners in the past, he might still be alive and Cuba’s government would not be accountable for this tragedy. But the arc of his life and their disregard for it converged to leave us where we are today; lamenting his death and asking for direction on the right way forward.
Sadness is certainly the right emotional reaction.
But then, we part company with those who will reach for reasons to justify their abiding faith in what has failed before. The Washington Post did that this morning in an editorial on Orlando Zapata’s death. In keeping with the quality and tone of their general thinking on Latin America, they referred to U.S. policy makers and foreign leaders as “Castro lovers” for urging a new approach to the policy on Cuba, while eliding the fact that he died with nearly all of the old policy in place and unchanged.
Congressman James P. McGovern, the Co-Chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said these words on the House Floor which strike us as much closer to the mark:
Zapata Tamayo paid the ultimate sacrifice for his commitment to changing Cuba’s system. He commands our respect. No one has starved himself to death in a Cuban prison in over forty years. Surely the Cuban government could have and should have intervened earlier to prevent this tragedy. His death is on their conscience.
I have always felt – and continue to believe – that if we are truly going to do a better job of standing with the Cuban people, then we need to be closer to them and in greater numbers. We need to travel freely to the island to meet and learn from them, and they from us. I hope that day comes soon so we can tell all the Cuban people that we remember the sacrifice of Orlando Zapata Tamayo.
We could not agree more.
In that spirit, and in this very same week, a forward-looking and bipartisan group of Congress Members introduced legislation to promote U.S. food sales to Cuba and to permit free travel for all Americans to Cuba.
Rather than standing just symbolically with Cubans at a distance, as those who embrace the Cuba embargo and all of its facets continue to ask us to do, these legislators believe — and we agree – that the better, more courageous, and ultimately more effective course is to stand with them literally, in person, in their country, and to put food produced here in America on their kitchen tables across Cuba. Actions like these would reflect the best of our values and provide precisely the kind of sustenance and support that the Cuban people deserve.
Orlando Zapata Tamayo
After an 85 day hunger strike, Cuban prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died this week in a Havana hospital. Zapata Tamayo was arrested in 2003 for participating in opposition activities and sentenced to 3 years in jail. His sentence was later lengthened to 25 years, BBC reported.
According to CNN, Tamayo stopped eating in December to protest the fact that he was being treated like a common criminal and not a prisoner of conscience, as Amnesty International and others determined he was. He was demanding to be moved to a cell separate from hardened criminals, given a different uniform, and the right to receive food from his family. “They (the Cuban government) managed to do what they wanted,” his mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo said. “They ended the life of a fighter for human rights.” His death marks Cuba’s first hunger strike-induced death in 40 years.
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Havana-based Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said that police watched but did not intervene in the funeral service, held in Zapata Tamayo’s native Banes in the Eastern part of the island, the Associated Press reported. Earlier, Mr. Sanchez said that as many as thirty activists were detained by the government to prevent them from attending the wake held in Mr. Zapata Tamayo’s honor.
According to Clarin, Raúl Castro approached reporters waiting at the Port of Mariel, where he was touring a port renovation with Brazil’s President Lula, and offered an apology for Tamayo’s death. “We are really sorry about his death. He was in jail for three years and he had problems… we put him in the best hospitals, but he died,” said Castro.
Tamayo was originally arrested and charged for conspiring with the United States, and Castro quickly shifted the blame to the relationship between the two countries. He is “one more victim” of the “confrontation that we have with the United States,” he said. According to Castro, the conflict has produced “more than 5,000 deaths and thousands of injured, without counting Cuban diplomats assassinated in the United States and Europe.”
“The day that the United States decides to coexist in peace with us, we will overcome all of these problems,” said Castro.
“They say that they would want to discuss everything with us and we are willing to debate all of the issues that they would like. Everything, everything, everything. But it must be done on equal footing. Just like they want to ask about everything in Cuba we also have the right to do the same with respect to the United States. In Cuba nobody is tortured…nobody is executed in an extrajudicial manner…that only happens on the base at Guantanamo.”
“There is not maximum freedom of expression in Cuba, it is true. But the day that the United States leaves us alone, there will be maximum freedom here.”
Testifying before Congress on the State Department’s 2011 budget, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharply criticized the Cuban government for the death and vowed to apply “consistent pressure” for the release of other dissidents rounded up in 2003, Voice of America reported.
“We send our condolences to his family and we also reiterate our strong objection to the actions of the Cuban government. This is a prisoner of conscience who was imprisoned for years for speaking his mind, for seeking democracy, for standing on the side of values that are universal, who engaged in a hunger strike. The United States government consistently requested that he be given medical assistance. And unfortunately, he paid for his courage and his commitment with his life,” she said.
In a statement, the Department of State said that while in Havana last week, the U.S. delegation for Migration Talks raised Zapata’s incarceration and poor health with Cuban officials and urged them to provide all necessary medical care.
Members of the U.S. Congress issued statements denouncing the dissident’s death, Spain’s ABC reported. “His life and his sacrifice will never be forgotten,” said Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). Congressman Lincoln Díaz Balart (R-FL) said that Zapata “is now part of the most glorious history of Cuba.”
Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) expressed his “deepest sorrow and outrage” and said the “Cuban government could have and should have intervened earlier to prevent this tragedy.”
Spain’s Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, called for the release of all Cuban political prisoners, EFE reported. “We must demand that the Cuban regime restore the freedom of prisoners of conscience and respect human rights,” he told Spain’s parliament. The European Union also issued a statement condemning the prisoner’s death.
The Roman Catholic Church of Cuba issued a statement calling the death a tragedy and asking authorities “to take appropriate measures so that situations like this are not repeated,” the Associated Press reported.
“His death is very painful,” said Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. “They have to change many things in Cuba and the first person that believes that is Raúl Castro, but the principal impediment for any change is the criminal blockade of the United States,” EcoDiario reported.
The Washington Post took advantage of the incident to question whether an international shift to engage with Cuba, what they refer to as “Castro-friendly Cuba policy,” is working.
The Post refers to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch critiques of the human rights situation in Cuba and the conditions surrounding Mr. Zapata’s death. However, they fail to mention that both organizations and Freedom House (and many others) support eliminating travel restrictions and have said that current U.S. policy does not help the human rights situation on the island and.
But Amnesty International’s statement noted: “There is an ongoing U.S. embargo with Cuba and sanctions, including food restrictions, are still in place. There’s yet more irony in the fact that Zapata’s own decision to deprive his body of what it needed to exist has proved fatal; in a way that external deprivation of trade has not so far been fatal for the Castro government.”
U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS
Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota introduced legislation this week to expand U.S. agriculture exports to Cuba, agricultural news sources reported. Peterson is the House Agriculture Committee Chairman and the bipartisan bill, H.R. 4645, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, is co-sponsored by more than 30 Members of Congress, including Representatives Jerry Moran (R-KS), Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT), , and Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO).
“Helping feed Cuba is good for the U.S. economy and for the Cuban people. This bill increases the ability of our farmers to sell their products to Cuba just like they do with our other trading partners,” Chairman Peterson said.
The Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act would do three things:
- It would allow direct payments from Cuban to U.S. banks, eliminating the need to go through third country banks and the fees associated with those transactions.
- It would require agricultural exports to Cuba to meet the same payment requirements as exports to other countries, which means payment would be required when the title of the shipment changes hands, not before the product leaves the port in the U.S.
- Finally, the bill would end all restrictions on travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba.
“U.S. producers are the closest suppliers that can help meet the food and agriculture needs of the Cuban people. Opportunities to sell to paying customers in Cuba have been hindered by bureaucratic red tape and by arbitrary prohibitions on the ability of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. This bill cuts the red tape and allows that trade and travel to happen,” Chairman Peterson said.
The American Soybean Association, The National Corn Growers Association and other agricultural groups quickly supported the new legislation. Peterson’s committee has set March 11th as the date for holding a hearing on the legislation.
As we reported, officials from the United States and Cuba met last week in Havana for a second round of migration talks. Both countries released positive statements following the talks.
According to the U.S. State Department, “Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Craig Kelly reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to promote safe, orderly, and legal migration.” American officials also discussed the need for “the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to be able to operate fully and effectively…to monitor the welfare of repatriated migrants…and to gain Cuban government acceptance for the repatriation of all Cuban nationals who are excludable on criminal grounds.”
According to Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the two countries “discussed some of the aspects contained in the new draft migration accord submitted by Cuba during the round of talks held in July, 2009, in New York, aimed at ensuring a legal, safe and orderly migration between the two countries and a more effective cooperation to combat illegal alien smuggling.” Cuba remains skeptical however, that cooperation can be accomplished “as long as the United States continues to implement the Cuban Adjustment Act and the wet foot/dry foot policy which encourages illegal departures and human smuggling.”
The day after official talks concluded, the U.S. delegation met with Cuban dissidents, angering the Cuban government. American officials ‘‘called together dozens of their mercenaries’’ hours after concluding highly anticipated talks on migration issues, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said. The Cubans said it “demonstrated anew that (U.S.) priorities are more related to supporting the counterrevolution and the promotion of subversion to destabilize the Cuban revolution than with the creation of a climate conducive to real solutions to bilateral problems.”
A senior American official defended the meeting, saying U.S. policy is to reach out to all sectors of Cuban society – not just the communist government, the New York Times reported., Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, stated that such meetings do not “rupture the dialogue between Washington and Havana” and reiterated Cuba’s desire to “sustain a respectful dialogue about any topic with the United States, as long as the discussions remain equal and without threat to Cuba’s independence, sovereignty and self-determination.”
Regarding detained contractor Alan Gross, U.S. officials once again called for his release this week. According to Reuters, “the Cubans listened, but offered little indication of what they will do.”
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was in Cuba this week to visit with Raúl and Fidel Castro and observe cooperation projects between Brazil and Cuba.
Following his meeting with Fidel Castro, Lula said the former leader is “exceptionally well” and appears to have recovered from a health crisis. He said the two spent more than an hour discussing “various topics,” the Associated Press reported.
Cuban state media reported Lula as requesting once again that President Obama end the embargo. “Obama should take the same audacity that he used to get elected by the North American people as president to lift the embargo on Cuba,” he said.
Lula and Raúl Castro traveled together to the port city of Mariel, about 30 miles west of Havana, where Brazil’s government is helping build a new port designed to handle full-size container ships. The $600 million renovation is being split equally between the two governments.
Brazil and Cuba are also discussing a proposal to work together to provide health care services to Haitian earthquake victims. “We know that the Cubans are, of all people in the world, the best specialists in solidarity and the most prepared and, therefore, we want to construct a plan to return hope to Haiti,” added Lula.
Brazil is Cuba’s fourth-largest commercial partner, with nearly $700 million in trade between the two countries in 2008.
Reuters reported that Lula’s trip, the third to Cuba in two years, “is meant to signal Cuba’s importance to whomever is elected his successor in Brazil’s October election” and “underscore his legacy of closeness to the island.” A Brazilian diplomat told Reuters that Lula’s trip is “a message to his successor that the relationship with Cuba is strategically important and he would like for the cooperation to continue and deepen.”
Meetings came to a close this week between Cuban and Mexican officials in which the two countries agreed to collaborate on several fronts. According to La Jornada, this 11th annual meeting ended with accords to cooperate against narco-trafficking and to share technologies that may protect against natural disasters. Previous agreements were also revised regarding Mexico’s purchase of Cuban vaccines, as well as the bolstering of a pact to establish sister-cities in both countries to support medicinal trade. Additionally, as EFE reported, there was near completion of an agreement to repatriate approximately 20 Mexicans who have been jailed in Cuba for six to eight years on charges of narco- and human trafficking.
Though the two countries were politically estranged during the presidency of Vicente Fox (2000-2006), the success of this week’s meetings seems to have further put that period in the past. “This will help Cuba and Mexico to recuperate their historic relationship,” said Mexico’s Senate leader Carlos Navarrete. “It was sadly damaged for a time, but now we are in a real process of recuperation.”
Venezuela-Cuba ferronickel production
A ferronickel joint venture between Venezuela and Cuba is well underway, according to official Cuban media this week, Reuters reported. The project, which includes the opening of a new production plant in Cuba’s eastern Holguin region as well as a steel-making plant in Venezuela, will take 1-2 years to complete. The new plant could produce 68,000 tons of ferronickel annually, the report said. Ferronickel is an iron-nickel combination mostly used in steel making. Unrefined nickel, in addition to cobalt, is Cuba’s largest export.
Cuban academics announced that they will not attend the International Congress of Spanish Language because the organizers invited the blogger Yoani Sanchez, the Associated Press reported. “They have invited people…whose presence can only be interpreted as a political provocation,” said a statement from academics published in state media.
The Congress will take place March 2-5 in Valparaíso, Chile. The note did not mention Sanchez by name. “When verifying the persistence of the organizers in favoring what obviously appears to be an anti-Cuban media show,” the Cuban academics, “agreed they would not attend the forum,” said the note, which also asked that situations like this “not be repeated.”
Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez said this week that there is a great need to “analyze” and “reflect” on why so many young Cubans aspire to leave the island, La Segunda reported. “A country without youth is destined to be a shadow, a ghost,” said Rodriguez. According to the founder of Nueva Trova, Cuba should “reflect and listen to the youth” and there needs to be “growth and benefits, not for the older people, but for the youth, whom really deserve it.” Rodriguez said this is not a new theme, but it is being “opened up” more for public debate on the island. “We’re not hiding from discussing it,” he said.
With a decrease in demand for luxury goods worldwide, sales of Cuban cigars fell 8 percent in 2009, and have fallen over 10 percent in the last two years, the Associated Press reported. A reduction in world wide travel has hurt the sale of “Cubans” at duty free shops in international airports. Spain, the top market for the product, has been hit hard by the recession and sales have plummeted. Government-run tobacco company Habanos SA said that France and Germany, along with Cuba itself are also top sellers. “This is not what we were expecting, not what we hoped for anyway,” said Habanos Vice President Manuel Garcia.
According to a Reuters report, Cuba has decided to tap into a previously untouched market when it comes to cigars — women. Women currently make up just five to ten percent of Cuban cigar smokers, but Habanos has created the new Julieta cigar, a milder adaptation of the famous Romeo and Julieta that has existed since 1875. The milder version is aimed specifically at female smokers. It’s an attempt to overcome perceptions among women that Cuban cigars are made up of “only strong tobacco for men,” said marketing director Ana Lopez.
In response to the 28 car accidents that occur daily, causing an average of two deaths per day, Cuba has begun studying ways to improve road safety throughout the island, China’s Pueblo en Linea reported. Although numbers have been higher in the past, an accident occurred approximately every 49 minutes in 2009, with injuries being reported every 68 minutes. Oscar del Toro, Cuba’s vice-minister of transportation said an effort is underway to increase driving education. The Cuban parliament has also suggested harsher penalties for those breaking driving laws as a solution to the lack of traffic safety.
The Industriales, arguably Cuba’s most popular baseball team, outlasted the team from Matanzas this week to earn the seventh spot in this year’s post-season tournament, Prensa Latina reported. They now join Santiago de Cuba, Sancti Spiritus, La Habana, Cienfuegos, Villa Clara, Guantanamo, and Ciego de Avila, who had already clinched playoff berths themselves. According to Impresiones Latinas, the Industriales are led by the bats of Yulieski Gourriel and Frederich Cepeda, who are both among the league leaders in several categories. Post-season play is set to begin next Tuesday.
Around the Region:
The Organization of American States released a report deeply critical of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. The report, accordingly to multiple news agencies, accused Mr. Chavez of systematically interfering with those who might criticize him — including the press, opposition politicians and unhappy Venezuelans seeking to demonstrate.
According to the AP, President Hugo Chavez responded saying that Venezuela should boycott the Organization of American States’ human rights body, saying the panel wrongly accused his government of political repression. He called the 300-page report ”pure garbage.”
Latin American and Caribbean leaders meeting at the Rio Summit in Mexico this week approved the creation of a regional organization. Approval for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which will not include the U.S. and Canada, came from heads of state attending the final session of a two-day “Unity Summit” in Cancun. More than 30 heads of state were in attendance.
The details of the new organization have yet to be worked out, but CNN reports that “some leaders see it as an attempt to counterbalance the Organization of American States, in which the United States and Canada are members.”
The proposed new grouping was one of the main issues on the agenda. The summit’s host, conservative Mexican President Felipe Calderon said the new organization “must as a priority push for regional integration… and promote the regional agenda in global meetings,” BBC reported. Cuban President Raúl Castro said it is a historic move toward “the constitution of a purely Latin American and Caribbean regional organization.” U.S. under-secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, Arturo Valenzuela, said he did not see the new body as a problem. “This should not be an effort that would replace the OAS,” he said.
George Washington University hosted a forum on Monday featuring experts analyzing the Obama administration’s policy towards the region, the Latin America News Dispatch reported. The president received mixed reviews, with some participants saying there’s been a break with the policies of the previous administration, while others suggested there has been little change.
Moisés Naím, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine, said it was too early to judge Obama’s first term, but said that his grading of the administration, “is not an A, but it’s not a C.” Former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo said “the region can no longer be taken for granted,” and that a lack of U.S. involvement will leave a void to be filled by China and Iran.
Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said she gives the Obama administration “high marks,” but said that the U.S. handling of a secret military base agreement with Colombia was the “one of the greatest setbacks” in improving relations with the region. Sarah Stephens, Director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, argued that on critical issues, the Obama administration has continued the policies of President Bush. You can read a full text of Ms. Stephens prepared remarks here.
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