Dead Cuban political prisoner's mom becomes brave activist
BY FRANCES ROBLES
Reina Luisa Tamayo's country life was simple: she raised animals and
kids, worked in cafeterias and bodegas, and did people's laundry.
Now approaching 62, the modest Cuban abuela finds herself catapulted
onto an international stage. Her son died after an 85-day hunger strike
a year ago Wednesday, and she has taken his public calling on as her own.
"Her life has changed radically,'' said Pedro Corzo, who produced a
documentary about Tamayo's son, Orlando Zapata Tamayo. "This is a humble
woman, a hard worker, a type of person who maybe doesn't have a lot of
formal education and worked mostly restaurant type jobs. She's not
academic, but she's very articulate. Her son's political commitment
ripped her from anonymity."
Tamayo used to wash clothes and sell bags of rice and sugar at the local
store. These days she leads marches, has her own blog, and is the
subject of news stories around the world. She has been arrested six times.
Her son was a 42-year-old boxer who became a bricklayer, and then a
dissident who became a political prisoner. His frequent public
anti-government confrontations landed him behind bars in 2003. He died
Feb. 23, 2010 after a hunger strike aimed at protesting prison
conditions. The Cuban government has said he wanted a phone and kitchen
in his cell.
Tamayo and her family hope to lead a march to church and his grave
Wednesday — if the ring of state security surrounding her house lets her
Zapata's death not only instantly transformed a little-known political
prisoner into an international martyr, but it produced something the
Cuban government proved ill-equipped to handle: a live sufferer for a
cause. From her grief, his mother took action, and the news cameras
"I had a normal life taking care of animals — normal," she said by
telephone from her home in Banes, in eastern Cuba. "I went from that
normal life to a tireless struggle of mistreatment and beatings. I have
suffered a lot."
In the year since her son's death, Tamayo has become one of the most
visible members of the Ladies in White group of mothers, wives and
female relatives of political prisoners. Harassed relentlessly, the
Catholic Church eventually had to intervene and ask the Cuban government
to call off its mobs.
At one point, the Cuban government tried to discredit her by releasing a
video of her taken with a hidden camera, showing her having a friendly
conversation with her son's government doctors just before she accused
the regime of letting him die.
"They have pulled my pants down in public. They have tried to suffocate
me with a rag soaked in gasoline. They have pushed and dragged me. I
have had my breasts exposed in the street. Bloomers have been pulled
down in front of the whole neighborhood," she said. "All of that has
been done to this family."
At one protest, someone stabbed her daughter-in-law in the breast with a
Miami activists first connected with Tamayo after her son's arrest, when
she joined the Ladies in White. She lived far from the Havana opposition
and was mostly out of the loop. Sometimes she traveled to the capital to
sell clothes and raise money she needed to visit her son at his Pinar
del Rio prison.
"She was a very quiet lady," said Laly Sampedro, who connects with
dissidents for the Cuban American National Foundation. "She was totally
dedicated to her children, always talking about the one in jail. Now she
has this total fixation that she has to keep talking about her son. ...
She says things like, 'I don't know if the government is going to let me
out of my house today, but I'm going to try.'''
She has held marches even when the Cuban government made clear the event
should not take place.
She's known as a screamer and speaks in long soliloquies about democracy
and freedom. When she mentions her son, she refers to him, every time,
by his full name: Orlando Zapata Tamayo.
"For 52 years, the Castro government had just one voice. We are only now
opening our eyes and seeing that this is not what we thought it was,"
she said. "We were in the countryside. What could we see? Now this
mother now has clear vision. The people are waking up. The government is
taking brothers and sisters out of their jobs and raising prices. I
expect the premeditated murder of Orlando Zapata Tamayo will waken
Cubans to the internal opposition, struggling for freedom, struggling
until we see Cuba with freedom and democracy for all."
Tamayo's most recent detention was last Friday, when she was held for 12
"At first the government threatened her and surrounded her house, but
kind of let her be. She'd go to the police station to protest and even
managed to get some people out," said Janisset Rivero, of the Democratic
Directorate, which works with Cuban dissidents. "What could the
government say to this lady? They had already killed her son. That all
changed Oct. 31 on a march to the cemetery. ... On that day, when they
started to hit people, the first to get hit was her."
Rivero said her group has counted 15 physical assaults in the past year.
Last week, Tamayo and 12 members of her family were offered visas to
move to the United States as political refugees. The Cuban government
has yet to provide her exit papers, and Tamayo has made it clear: she
will not leave without her son's ashes.
An attempt to exhume his body was bungled late last year, when she
called it off, because she suspected the government had duped her into
believing they were prepared to free her and the remains. She still
hasn't gotten her son's death certificate.
"She keeps shouting 'democracy' and keeps denouncing, and the government
is bothered by that,'' Rivero said. "She has become the symbol of
rebellion and pain of the Cuban people. She is a woman who cannot be