The death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo in February of this year brought the issue of human rights in Cuba into sharp focus.
Late last year, the 42-year-old plumber – a member of the Republican Alternative Movement in Cuba -began his hunger strike after being denied political prisoner status by the Cuban authorities.
He was protesting not only against his own treatment but the living conditions of all those held in Cuban jails. Tamayo’s subsequent death turned him into a martyr in the eyes of his supporters.
Back in 2003, the arrest of 75 dissidents by the Cuban regime spawned an unprecedented movement. The mothers, wives and sisters of the estimated 180 Cuban prisoners of conscience eventually became “The Ladies in White”. They dared to defy the government and took their cause to the streets challenging the legal basis for the incarceration of their loved ones especially 26 of those whose health is failing.
Their pressure has yielded some results. On
June 10 this year 46-year old Ariel Sigler, was freed after seven years in prison. A paraplegic, he remains seriously ill. Another prisoner, Darsi Ferrer Ramirez has been placed under house arrest and 12 other prisoners have been transferred to prisons in their home provinces.
These concessions are the first tangible results of a dialogue – which began on May 19 of this year -between the Catholic Church and the Communist regime when the Vatican sent its foreign minister, Dominique Mamberti to meet Cuban leader Raul Castro in Havana.
Spain also remains engaged in a diplomatic process aimed at moving forward on Cuba. Madrid wants its EU partners to ease the pressure on the Cuban government and the thorny issue of dissident prisoners is likely to be high on the agenda in any further meetings between Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Pope Benedict XVI.