When Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died this week on an 85-day hunger strike, hopes for near-term improvement in US-Cuba relations may have died with him, political experts said on Friday.
His death in a protest against prison conditions added to tensions caused by the arrest of a US contractor in Cuba and made the political climate tougher for diplomatic and legislative moves to improve ties, they said.
“For the time being all bets are off regarding further progress in US-Cuba relations,” said Marifeli Perez-Stable, a Cuba analyst at Florida International University in Miami.
Zapata’s death prompted indignant statements in Washington, where long-time opponents of communist Cuba said it showed the US must not appease the government of Cuban President Raul Castro by easing the 48-year trade embargo against the island, the cornerstone of US-Cuba policy.
“Let us take his sad and untimely death and renew our commitment to assure that the Cuba of the future is rid of the failed ideology which killed this brave man,” Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said.
For supporters of a thaw in relations with Cuba, Zapata’s death makes it harder for them to make their central argument — that the best way to encourage change in Cuba is to get closer to it.
With unfortunate timing, new legislation was proposed on the day of Zapata’s death that would do just that by ending a general ban on US travel to Cuba and making it easier for Cuba to buy food from the US.
“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,” Democratic Representative Jim McGovern said in the US House of Representatives.
“We need to travel freely to the island to meet and learn from them, and them from us,” he said.
A similar problem is facing Spain, which is currently presiding over the EU and has pushed to remove a clause from the EU’s common position on Cuba urging democracy and greater respect for human rights.
Under pressure from the media, Spanish Prime Minister Jose ,Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a socialist and long-time advocate of close ties with Havana, lamented Zapata’s death and demanded that Cuba free political prisoners and respect human rights.
“That is a fundamental demand of the entire international community,” he told parliament.
Cuba’s small dissident community, meanwhile, vowed to step up demands for democratic change so that Zapata will not have died in vain.
On Friday, four Cuban inmates considered political prisoners and an opposition activist who is not behind bars vowed to stop eating in protest against Zapata’s death. Prisoners Diosdado Gonzalez Marrero, Eduardo Diaz Freitas, Fidel Suarez Cruz and Nelson Molinet, held in the high-security Kilo Cinco y Medio prison in the western province of Pinar del Rio, were refusing solid food, the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation said.
Also on a new hunger strike is Guillermo Farinas, an activist-journalist in the central province of Las Villas who reports independently on Cuba in defiance of state controls on the media.