HAVANA TIMES, Feb 24 (IPS) – Several dozen anti-government opponents gathered Wednesday at the headquarters of the Ladies in White, a Cuban dissident group, in the capital, to hold a “symbolic wake” for Orlando Zapata, a political prisoner who died on the 85th day of a hunger strike.
The funeral for the 42-year-old Zapata will be held Thursday morning in his hometown of Banes, in the eastern province of Holguín, nearly 900 km from the capital.
“We are from different opposition parties and we are here to say farewell to Orlando,” activist Odalis Sanabria told IPS at the home of Laura Pollán, one of the best-known members of the Ladies in White.
The official government website cubadebate.cu posted a statement by President Raúl Castro Wednesday, who regretted Zapata’s death, but denied the allegations that prisoners are mistreated in Cuba.
“There is no torture here, no one was tortured, there was no execution. That happens at the Guantanamo base,” said the Cuban leader, referring to the situation of the prisoners held for years by the United States at its naval base at the eastern tip of Cuba.
Castro was responding to questions from Brazilian journalists in an event in the port of Mariel, 45 km west of Havana, with visiting Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The Cuban government rarely reacts to events or developments involving dissidents.
Zapata died Tuesday in a Havana hospital, where he was transferred from the prison clinic.
He was fasting to demand that he be recognized as a “prisoner of conscience,” as he was considered by the London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International.
“Orlando was a non-conformist; he was demanding better prison conditions and refused to use the uniform of a common prisoner because he was a political prisoner,” Hector Julio Cedeño, who described himself as an independent journalist, commented to IPS.
At Pollán’s house, candles were lit in front of photos of Zapata, and a book of condolences was set out for guests to sign at the symbolic wake, organized for people unable to make it to the funeral in Holguín.
Zapata’s body was flown to his home province and handed over to his mother, Reina Tamayo. Pollán, Berta Soler and other members of the Ladies in White, who are wives and other family members of 75 dissidents sentenced to lengthy prison terms in 2003, travelled to Banes for the funeral.
Other dissidents who are going to Banes are Martha Beatriz Roque and Vladimiro Roca, representatives of the most hard-line opposition groups in Cuba, which have criticized, for example, the decisions of Spain and the European Union to improve relations with Cuba.
Statements regretting Zapata’s death were issued by the EU, the U.S. State Department, and Amnesty International, which called for an investigation into the dissident’s death, and for the release of all political prisoners.
The Spanish embassy in Cuba expressed its condolences to Zapata’s mother. Diplomatic sources said the embassy closely followed the case and mentioned it in recent contacts between the two governments.
Delegations from Spain and Cuba met this month in Madrid for the fourth time to discuss human rights issues, as part of a political dialogue that got under way in 2007.
Spain, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, is pressing for a normalization of ties with Cuba.
Zapata was not one of the 75 dissidents handed long sentences in 2003 on charges of conspiring with Washington to subvert the government, although he was arrested at around the same time. He was initially sentenced to three years in prison for contempt, public disorder and disobedience.
But according to anti-government opponents, he was convicted of other acts of defiance, disorder and resistance while in prison, and by the time he died he was facing a total of 36 years in prison.
He was reportedly transferred from prison to prison, due to his involvement in protests with other inmates.
Zapata was the second imprisoned dissident to die during a hunger strike in nearly four decades in Cuba. The first was Pedro Luis Boitel, a student leader who died after a 53-day hunger strike in prison in 1972.
Opposition sources also mentioned the death of Miguel Valdés Tamayo, one of the group of 75 dissidents, who died of a heart attack in January 2007 in a Havana hospital. He had been released on parole several months earlier due to health issues, including high blood pressure and cardiac problems, which were aggravated by his years in prison.
The Cuban government considers all members of internal opposition movements to be “paid mercenaries” at the service of the hostile U.S. policy towards Cuba.
In its most recent report, issued in January, the opposition Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation harshly criticized the human rights situation in this socialist Caribbean island nation and predicted that “unless a miracle occurs,” the outlook in 2010 “will be the same or worse.”