Cuban dissident Orlando Tamayo Zapata hunger strikes for the rights of Cuban prisoners, 2009-2010

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Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Tamayo's death marks the end of his immediate campaign, but his actions sparked significant support for his cause both inside and outside of Cuba after his death.
3 December
23 February
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
Location Description: 
Kilo 8 prison (a Cuban maximum security prison)
To draw attention to the harsh treatment of Cuban prisoners and the imprisonment of peaceful dissidents.

Despite the authoritarian nature of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Communist Party and its reputation for harsh treatment of dissident uprisings, many Cuban opposition groups persisted in calling for a more democratic Cuba throughout the late 20th century and into the new millennium. (See “Cubans petition for democratic reforms, 1998-2003” for more information on Cuba’s political history)

Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a local carpenter and plumber, was an active member of the nonviolent opposition movement in Cuba, boasting membership in two dissident groups, the Movimiento Alternativa Republicana and the Consejo Nacional de Resistencia Cívica. In the early 2000s Castro’s intolerance of opposition mounted, and Tamayo, among others, was arrested in December 2002 on charges that he had been ‘disrespectful’ to Cuban police. Soon after his release in March 2003, Tamayo participated in a fast with several other former prisoners and leaders of the opposition movement. The fast was intended to draw attention to the rights of Cuban prisoners that were experiencing harsh conditions in Cuban prisons.

18 March 2003 marked the first of two days of a massive government crackdown on dissidents known as the Black Spring. Tamayo was among hundreds of dissidents arrested and thrown in jail awaiting trial. He was tried on 18 May 2004, and sentenced to three years in jail for contempt, public disorder, and disobedience along with 75 others.

In 2004, Amnesty International named Tamayo and four other Cuban men ‘Prisoners of Conscience.’ Amnesty International urged the Cuban government to release all Prisoners of Conscience and stop the harassment and harsh treatment of dissidents.

Not long after, Tamayo was tried again and sentenced to 36 years in prison.

Tamayo began his sentence in a prison in Havana, but he was moved to several different prisons during his term. Many of the 75 prisoners were transferred during their sentences to move them as far away as possible from their families. Female relatives of the prisoners had formed a protest group called Las Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White).

Tamayo and the other prisoners endured harsh treatment in Cuban prisons. Tamayo was reportedly subjected to multiple beatings, one of which merited surgery when guards at Holguin provincial prison caused an internal hematoma in his head. Tamayo took the route of many Cuban prisoners to draw attention to his suffering: he began a hunger strike on 3 December 2009, at Kilo 8 prison in Camaguey to draw attention to the government’s incarceration of peaceful dissidents.

Prison guards took Tamayo to solitary confinement, where prisoners on hunger strikes were often taken to try to break their spirit. Tamayo was defiant, and refused to eat anything that was brought to him by anyone other than his mother, who visited him every three months.

News of Tamayo’s hunger strike reached beyond the walls of the prison, and Amnesty International continued to put pressure on Castro to release the Prisoners of Conscience. In the 11th week of the hunger strike American officials heard about Tamayo’s declining health and put pressure on their Cuban counterparts during talks on immigration in Havana.

To further discourage Tamayo, the prison director, Major Filiberto Hernández Luis, denied him water for 18 days, taking away his only sustenance. The forced dehydration induced a kidney failure, and Tamayo was taken to Amalia Simoni Hospital in Camaguay where he was fed intravenously against his will. Tamayo’s condition worsened when he developed pneumonia in the hospital bed and was transferred to a hospital at Combinado del Este prison, which did not have the capacity to treat him.

On 23 February 2010 Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after having refused food for 85 days.

The outrage from the international community after Tamayo’s death was immediate and overwhelming. Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as top governmental leader in 2008, issued a statement of regret in the days immediately following Tamayo’s death.

Shortly after Tamayo's death Guillermo Farinas, a Cuban dissident, psychologist, and independent journalist, started a 134-day hunger strike in honor of Tamayo, demanding that all ailing political prisoners be released from Cuban prisons. Farinas was joined by other prisoners that had been arrested in the Black Spring, who started their own hunger strikes in protest.

In March the European Parliament voted to condemn Cuba for the “avoidable and cruel” death of Tamayo. The European Parliament was joined by others including the Cuban Democratic Directorate, Las Damas de Blanco and the Cuba Archive of the Free Society Project.

Tamayo’s mother Reina Luisa Tamayo vowed to carry on her son’s fight for justice in Cuba, denouncing the Castro regime. After her son’s death, she and her family were harassed and intimidated by government supporters, prompting her to leave Cuba and bring her son’s ashes to Miami, where she and her family relocated. Upon her arrival she gave a small press conference declaring her vision of a free Cuba and furthering her martyred son’s cause.

Within two years of Tamayo's death all 75 men originally arrested during the Black Spring were released.

Research Notes

Hunger strikes by other Cuban prisoners (1,2).

The Associated Press. "Cuba: Europe Condemns Striker’s Death." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. NY Times, 11 Mar. 2010. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <>.

"Biographical Summary of Orlando Zapata Tamayo." Payo Libre. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <>.

Carroll, Rory. "Dissident Dies on Hunger Strike in Cuban Jail | World News |" Latest News, Sport and Comment from the Guardian | The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 23 Feb. 2010. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <>.

"Cuba." U.S. Department of State. U.S. State Department, 7 Nov. 2011. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <>.

Darlington, Shasta. "Cuban Hunger Striker Remembered on Anniversary of Death - CNN." Featured Articles from CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., 23 Feb. 2011. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <>.

"DOCUMENT - CUBA: FOUR NEW PRISONERS OF CONSCIENCE." Amnesty International. Amnesty International, 29 Jan. 2004. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <>.

Lacey, Marc. "Dissident’s Death Ignites Protest Actions in Cuba." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. NY Times, 26 Feb. 2010. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <>.

Masferrer, Mark. "Orlando Zapata Tamayo Dies (UPDATED)." Uncommon Sense. TypePad, 23 Feb. 2010. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <>.

"One Year Commemoration of Orlando Zapata Tamayo's Death." U.S. Department of State. U.S. State Department, 23 Feb. 2011. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <>.

"Orlando Zapata Tamayo." #OZT I Accuse the Cuban Government. 3 Apr. 2011. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <>.

"Political Prisoner’s Death Highlights Barbaric Conditions and an Alarming Death Toll in Cuba’s Prisons." Cuba Archive. Free Society Project, Inc., 23 Feb. 2010. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <>.

Press, The Associated. "Cuban Activist Ends Hunger Strike." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. NY Times, 08 July 2010. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <>.

Press, The Associated. "World Briefing - Americas - Cuba - Regret Over Dissident’s Death -" The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. NY Times, 25 Feb. 2010. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <>.

Puig, Christina. "Orlando Zapata Tamayo's Mother Brings His Ashes, And His Fight For a Free Cuba, to Miami Read More: Http://" Fox News Latino. FOX News Network, LLC., 10 June 2011. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <>.

Smith-Estrada, Carmen. "Cubans Petition for Democratic Reforms, 1998-2003." Global Nonviolent Action Database. Swarthmore College, 20 Nov. 2011. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <>.

Additional Notes: 
The fight for prisoners in Cuba continued with full force after Tamayo’s death with many dissidents upholding their resistance to the Castro regime. The efforts of Las Damas de Blanco, the Catholic Church, and hunger strikers in Cuba were supported by mounting pressure by the international community. By 2011, the 75 prisoners that were originally imprisoned after the Black Spring had been released, but scores more remain in Cuban jails faced with harsh conditions. The fight continues.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Elena Ruyter 4/12/2011