Human Rights in Cuba and Honduras, 2010: The Spring of Discontent

Campaign News | Wednesday, 19 May 2010

By John M. Kirk, Dalhousie University* and Emily J. Kirk, Cambridge University*

The spring of 2010 has witnessed a plethora of articles in mainstream US media on the human rights situation in Cuba, largely surrounding three issues-the hunger strike (and eventual death) of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, that of Guillermo Fariñas, and a series of demonstrations by opponents of the government (and family members of prisoners) known as the Ladies in White.

The facts are clear in all cases. Zapata died on February 23 after 85 days of a hunger strike-the first Cuban to perish in this manner in almost 40

years. The following day Fariñas started his own strike at his home, and has been hospitalized since March 11, demanding the release of 26 allegedly ill political prisoners. The Ladies in White are a group that was formed in 2003 to protest the imprisonment of 75 opposition figures and sentenced to lengthy terms. Some 53 of that number remain in prison. The women have been leading demonstrations for 7 years, marching on Sundays down Fifth Avenue in the Miramar district of Havana. In early April, however, they were confronted by large pro-government demonstrations, and security forces intervened to protect them.

For three Sundays in a row these confrontations continued until Cardinal Jaime Ortega negotiated with government officials, with the result that the Ladies were allowed to march wherever they wanted, and without official permission to stage a demonstration (normally required by Cuban law). What was negotiated was a return to the status quo ante that had existed prior to the first week of December 2009. On May 2 a dozen Women in White renewed their traditional march. [1]

The case of Zapata received a tremendous amount of media attention, in part because it was the first time in decades that an opponent of the Cuban government had died during a hunger strike. He was arrested in 2003, charged with contempt and public disorder and given a prison sentence of 3 years. Subsequent acts of defiance in prison led to further charges being

laid. He started his hunger strike on December 8, 2009, and died on February 23, 2010. He was widely presented as a person imprisoned for his

human rights beliefs, summed up in a release by the International Republican Institute entitled "Democracy's Heroes: Orlando Zapata Tamayo".[2]

Emotional descriptions were given of his prison conditions and the punishments he had received. His back was "tattooed with blows," and when

he was transferred to hospital he was "skin and bones, his stomach is just a hole," his mother noted.[3] Emotionally disturbed by the deliberate suicide of her son, she lashed out at the treatment received, calling his death "a

premeditated murder" by the Cuban government. Her criticism of the lack of medical care provided was highlighted in media reports, when it was clear that just the opposite was true. In fact a video shown on Cuban television shows her expressing gratitude to the medical staff attending him.[4]

Vocal denunciations of the abuse of human rights in Cuba were sprinkled among the many articles dealing with Zapata. The term "prisoner of

conscience" was liberally used to describe his plight, and he was presented as a political activist who was protesting inhuman treatment in prison. In the media rush to show him as a person imprisoned for his political beliefs, little attention was paid to his long criminal record, involving domestic violence (1993), possession of a weapon and assault, including the use of a machete to fracture the cranium of Leonardo Simón (2000), fraud (2000), and public disorder (2002).[5] In sum, the issue of his imprisonment is somewhat

murkier than might at first appear.

Mainstream US media covered the events in great detail-with over 80 articles published in a 3-month period. Interviews with leading dissidents in Cuba, exile politicians, Miami groups opposed to the Cuban government, U.S.politicians, resulted, all praising the courage and honesty of Zapata. The opinion was given that the Cuban government was fearful that the death would

lead to massive protests, and so "an increased police presence was reported in the streets of several Cuban cities".[6] In various press reports mention was made of major demonstrations of grief, and concern by the government resulting in extreme security measures being adapted.

The Obama approach to Cuba was also linked with the Zapata case, and anger was directed to both Cuba and the president. A common impression given is that the Obama administration has tried to pursue a more flexible approach to Cuba, but has been met with Cuban intransigence and hostility. One editorialist of The Washington Post used the suicide to condemn Obama?s

policy-which was seen as being too liberal: "Is the new, Castro-friendly approach working? A good answer to that question came Tuesday, when

Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a 42-year-old Afro-Cuban political prisoner, died after an 83-day hunger strike".[7]

The U.S. government has recently issued outspoken condemnations of the Cuban government's approach to human rights, with statements by Philip J. Crowley(Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs) and even President Barack Obama. The president condemned the "repression visited upon Las Damas de Blanco, and the intensified harassment of those who dare to give voice to

the desires of their fellow Cubans", while noting that "Cuban authorities continue to respond to the aspirations of the Cuban people with a clenched fist".[8] One searches in vain, however, for any references by the president to the clenched fist of the Honduran government and the appalling human rights record since the removal of President Zelaya in June of 2009.

In a related matter, it is clear that US media has provided an extremely sympathetic portrayal of the 'Ladies in White,' as can be seen from the

titles of a recent article in the Miami Herald, "United by Pain, Cuba's Ladies in White Vow to Keep Marching," and an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, "Women Who Brave Mobs".[9] The terminology in the latter leaves little to the imagination, with references to the women "getting leaned on by Havana's toughs," "Castro's goons," "the regime's desperation in the face of popular discontent," and the Ladies in White "walking in the face of an

increasingly dangerous mob".[10]

The attention given to the "Damas de Blanco"[11] has in many ways mirrored that given to the cases of Zapata and, to a lesser extent, Fariñas. The

fact that they have been protesting for several years in Havana without any significant repression (or media coverage) would indicate that the recent extensive coverage is due to an unusual conjunctural set of circumstances.

In Miami a demonstration in favor of Cuban human rights activists was held on March 25 in which Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan and her husband music producer Emilio, together with exile singers Willy Chirino and Olga Guillot, while a few days later Cuban exile, the actor Andy García, participated in a march in Los Angeles to show his support for the Damas de


It would appear that, for a variety of reasons, opposition groups to the Cuban government decided in the spring of 2010 to ramp up their activities-and the media jumped on the bandwagon and followed suit. It is also clear that, as the Cuban government responded, US media became

increasingly critical in their presentation of the human rights situation.

Typical of the reaction was a pointed editorial in The Miami Herald: "In a democracy, people can disagree. They can march to protest their government, they can chastise their elected officials in public forums, they can walk down the street carrying placards voicing their opinions [.] Not in Cuba. Never in Cuba".[12]

This massive media campaign against marches taking place by an opposition group-some of whose members have admitted to having been paid by U.S.

government officials-during a few weeks had never been seen before. Again it must be emphasized that these weekly marches have been going on for seven years, and without any major harassment from government officials. That fact is ignored almost completely by the media.[13] What is also ignored in U.S. media analysis is the recent approval by Washington of some $20 million

to promote political destabilization in Cuba, with funds being earmarked "to

provide humanitarian support to prisoners of conscience and their families.

Funds may also be used to support democratic rule of law programs that promote, protest and defend human rights in Cuba". Other funds are earmarked "to provide humanitarian support to families of Cuban political prisoners". In all $20 million is to be made available.[14] This of course follows on from five decades of U.S. government hostility after Washington broke off diplomatic relations on January 3, 1961, maintains the "Trading with the Enemy" act, and over the decades has supported a variety of hostile acts (including terrorism) against Cuba.

In synthesis, the issue of the hunger strike of Orlando Zapata (which resulted in his suicide), and the hostilities faced by the Damas de Blanco

over a three-week period in the spring of 2010 resulted in an unprecedented barrage of media coverage in the spring of 2010. The media campaign was ferocious, and clearly focused. Perhaps the most thoughtful response to it came from an unexpected source-Cardenal Jaime Ortega of Havana, who criticized the "media violence" and the "verbal war by the media in the United States, Spain and other countries".[15] If one contrasts those facts with events in Honduras during approximately the same time, and if one

analyzes the nature of media coverage of events there, a very different picture emerges.

Most of those developments follow on from the circumstances surrounding the coup d?état of June 28, 2009, when the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, was ousted. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights confirmed that several hundred arbitrary arrests and beatings of supporters of the overthrown Zelaya government by the armed forces and police occurred.

The list of abuses was long and detailed: "killings, an arbitrary declaration of a state of emergency, disproportionate use of force against public demonstrations, criminalization of public protest, arbitrary

detention of thousands persons, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatments, poor detention conditions, militarization of Honduran territory, an increase in incidents of racial discrimination, violations of women's rights, severe and arbitrary restrictions on the right of freedom of expression, and serious violations of political rights".[16]

In just the first hundred days after the coup, the Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (COFADEH) documented 4,234

violations by the de facto government, including 21 extrajudicial killings, 3,033 illegal detentions, and 818 cases of violence.[17] It is clear that the numbers of victims was in fact much higher, but that many have not made public their treatment at the hands of security forces out of fear of reprisal. From June 2009 to February 2010, COFADEH documented 43

politically motivated murders. Particularly chilling is the fact that in the spring of 2010 some 7 journalists were assassinated.[18] Amnesty

International and Human Rights Watch condemned the widespread abuses, echoing the conclusions of the Organization of American States.

Sadly, these extremely clear violations of human rights in Honduras have been commonplace, though the media in North America have largely ignored

them. A quantitative analysis of the media attention paid to the three issues studied here-the hunger strike of Zapata, the treatment of the ladies in White over a 3-week period, and the killings and beating accruing in Honduras in recent months-is telling.

Table 1: Media Coverage of Three Human Rights-Related Topics

News No. of posts regarding No. of post regarding No. of post

Agency 7 murdered journalists Cuba hunger strike on Ladies in

& human rights abuses (02/10/2010-05/6/2010) White

Honduras [20] (02/01/20-

(6/29/2009-5/6/2010)[19] 05/06/2010


CNN 2 7 7

New York Times 1 8 1

Washington Post 1 13 5

Boston Globe 1 4 2

Miami Herald 1 55 46

Total 6 86 61

As the table above indicates, there have been a large number of articles on the hunger striker, and very little on the murdered journalists, and much less on the widespread human rights abuses in Honduras since the overthrow of President Zelaya. In fact, of the news agencies examined above, there are over 14 times more posts published on the hunger striker in Cuba, than that

of the murders of journalist and human rights abuses in Honduras. As noted earlier, it is clear that there is an abundance of material to be studied for the latter-should the media be interested.

A qualitative analysis also indicates an unequal representation of both issues. While the articles describe the slow death of Zapata, a man who was

charged with various federal crimes and chose to ignore medical assistance, there has been almost no explanation of the vast and overarching abuses

suffered by the Honduran people-including dozens of murders and thousands of arbitrary arrests and beatings.

To be sure, the severity or extent of these issues has not been accurately portrayed in the media. Moreover, not only is information sadly lacking in the case of Honduras, but it is also often presented in a superficial way.

Noticeably, for example three of the articles presented in these major media outlets were identical, and simply listed Honduras among several countries including Mexico, Colombia, Pakistan, and Nigeria as dangerous places for

journalists to work.[22] The others briefly state that UNESCO, Amnesty International and some Honduran human rights groups are concerned about the level of violence and abuses of human rights throughout the country, particularly of those who oppose the government. Of all of these articles

found, only one CNN report explained in any detail the prevalence and ferocity of violence that Hondurans have been facing since the coup of June 2009.

By contrast, the Cuban government was incessantly vilified for "letting" Zapata die and articles were particularly emphatic about the government's

restrictions on the Damas de Blanco and the "repression" of its people.

Political and celebrity figures including President Obama, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Senator John Kerry have also been widely cited in denouncing the Cuban government's treatment of its people.

By contrast one sees no celebrities or politicians being cited to condemn the dozens of assassinations at the hands of the security forces in Honduras-sadly a case of selective indignation.

In a strongly worded statement condemning the treatment received by the Ladies in White, and reflecting on the suicide of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, President Obama called for "an end to the repression" in Cuba. He added "I remain committed to supporting the simple desire of the Cuban people to freely determine their future and to enjoy the rights and freedoms that define the Americas".[23] Clearly he was not referring to the situation the rights and freedoms in Honduras.

Can we imagine what the U.S. government would say, or do, if within a few months 7 journalists had been assassinated in Cuba? Or if dozens of

government opponents had been murdered by the Cuban military during the same time frame? A useful comparison of official United States position on the human rights abuses in both countries can de derived from statements made by

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on these issues. She has repeatedly condemned the Cuban government for the treatment of Zapata and

others, stating "They're letting these hunger strikers die. They've got 200 political prisoners who are there for trivial reasons. And so I think that many in the world are starting to see what we have seen a long time, which is a very intransigent, entrenched regime that has stifled opportunity for the Cuban people, and I hope will begin to change and we're open to changing with them, but I don't know that will happen before some more time goes by".[24]

By contrast, directly following the Honduran coup in 2009, she refused to refer to the political situation as such, nor condemn the violence and gross and repeated violation of human rights in that situation.[25] Rather, she later stated "we believe that President Lobo and his administration have taken the steps necessary to restore democracy".[26] It is lamentable that

she has not been able to lay aside political preference in order to criticize manifest abuses in Honduras.

On May 3, 2010 ("World Press Freedom Day") Ms. Clinton issued a noteworthy statement noting that "Wherever independent media are under threat, accountable governance and human freedom are undermined".[27] She passionately defended journalists risking their lives to provide

"independent information" on government abuses, and singled out the efforts of Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, an outspoken critic of the Cuban government, noting that President Obama had also praised her efforts. She concluded by noting that the United States was committed to "defend freedom of expression and the brave journalists who are persecuted for exercising it". One looks

in vain, however, for any reference by leading U.S. government officials to the Honduran journalists who were assassinated for doing just that. Apparently their contribution is less important. Clearly there is a double standard at play; sadly, mainstream US media reflect that same double standard.

On April 29, following the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the National Lawyers Guild of the United States issued a statement that was widely

ignored by mainstream media. In fact there is apparently no analysis of its significance in any of the leading U.S. media. It is unfortunate because it puts in context the crux of this issue-media treatment of the suicide of one individual in Cuba after rejecting medical assistance for weeks, versus an ongoing process of assassination and brutality in Honduras, a traditional US

ally. The NLG Executive Director Heidi Boghosian closes the release in the following way: "The National Lawyers Guild opposes infractions of human rights anywhere, but Cuban prison officials acted properly when Zapata decided to go on a hunger strike. We urge the media to turn its attention to real human rights violations and deadly foreign policies in this country and elsewhere".[28] Well said.


[1] See Will Weissert's report for AP, "Cuba Frees Backer of Dissident Group

Amid Appeal," May 11, 2010 and Mauricio Vicent, "El gobierno cubano se

compromete con la Iglesia Católica a permitir las marchas de las Damas de

Blanco," El País, May 2, 2010.

[2] The International Republican Institute, "Democracy's Heroes: Orlando

Zapata Tamayo," April 28, 2010. Found at

Accessed May 13, 2010.

[3] Juan O. Tamayo, "Jailed Cuban Activist Orlando Zapata Tamayo Dies on

Hunger Strike," The Miami Herald, February 23, 2010.

[4] In the March 1, 2010, national nightly news report on Cuban television

she was shown addressing Cuban medical personnel: "Well, thank you very

much. we have full confidence. we can see your concern and that everything

that is being done to save him". See "Orlando Zapata Tamayo, A Case of

Political Manipulation," Granma Internacional Digital, March 4, 2010. Found


Accessed May 13, 2010. Further evidence is provided in the article to show

the extraordinary lengths to which Cuban officials went-even having a kidney

ready in case his failed. His mother is seen also stating "I was able to

see the doctors who were there before I went in, and there were doctors from

CIMEQ (Center for Medical Surgical Research), the best doctors, trying to

save his life."

[5] One Cuban academic has noted that he was in jail for "breaching the

peace, 'public damage,' resistance to authority, two charges of fraud, 'public exhibitionism,' repeated charges of felonious assault, and being

illegally armed". See Michael Parenti and Alicia Jrapko, "Cuban Prisoners, Here and There," Monthly Review, April 15. 2010. Found at See also "Campaña mediática contra Cuba. Cronología

de los hechos," La Jiribilla, April 4, 1010. Found at Accessed April 4, 2010. A detailed analysis of the

Zapata case can also be found in Salim Lamrani, "The Suicide of Orlando

Zapata Tamayo," March 18, 2010. Found at Accessed May 13, 2010. The

French academic makes a telling point, noting that in France between January

1, 2010 and February 24 a total of 22 suicides in prison, with 122 in French

prisons (2009) and 115 (2008)-without any apparent media interest.

[6] Juan O. Tamayo, "Jailed Cuban Activist.".

[7] See the editorial, "Is the Castro-friendly Cuba Policy Working?," The

Washington Post, February 26, 2010.

[8] See White House Statement on Orlando Zapata Tamayo, March 24, 2010.

Found at

rights-situation-cuba. Accessed May 13, 2010. Also see Philip J. Crowley, "Death of Cuban Dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo," found at Accessed May 13, 2010.

[9] Juan O. Tamayo, "United by Pain, Cuba's Ladies in White Vow to Keep

Marching," Miami Herald, April 24, 2010, and the editorial "Women Who Brave

Mobs," Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2010.

[10] A very different interpretation is given by Cuban academic Enrique

Ubieta: "The Ladies in White are a movie montage. The right wing had

learned to take left-wing formulas of expression such as the Mothers of the

Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, authentic women struggling in memory of their

children and grandchildren, tortured and murdered. In Cuba there are no

tortured or assassinated prisoners. The people in prison were judged by

courts, following our laws. So, they take the wives and mothers of people

who worked to subvert the constitutional order [.] they dress them in

white--a color associated with peace and purity-they hand them some gladioli

and take them to a Catholic church, a perfect scenario for them to be seen

in Europe. And when they are ready they say "Cameras! Action!" And that's

where we see CNN, Spanish TV cameras. What you are seeing is a film that is

a fiction, while on the street away from the action are the European and US

diplomats-the producers of the film, who are the ones paying for the show".

See Fernando Arrizado, "Enrique Ubieta: 'Las Damas de Blanco son un montaje

escenográfico,'" Cubadebate, April 27, 2010. Found at

Accessed April 28, 2010. (Translation by authors).

[11] See "Cuba's 'Ladies in White' March Blocked Again," Washington Post, April 25, 2010 and Will Weissert?s report for Associated Press of the same

day. Available at Accessed April 25, 2010.

[12] "Cuba's Brutality," The Miami Herald, March 19, 2010. The editorial

concluded: "Only a concerted effort by democratic governments-from the left

and the right-can show Raúl and Fidel Castro that their free ride of terror

is coming to an end".

[13] In a recent interview leading Cuban academic Rafael Hernández quotes

the Royal Academy of Spain dictionary to show that many of the opposition

figures who receive financial support from U.S. government officials are in

fact mercenaries. The context of U.S. enmity needs to be considered, since

Washington broke relations with revolutionary Cuba in January 1961, and has

supported a variety of policies designed to bring about "regime change" in

Cuba. See Mauricio Vicent, " Mauricio Vicent entrevista a Rafael Hernández, director de la revista Temas," El País, April 9, 2010.

[14] See "United States Department of State. Congressional Notification.

Program: Western Hemisphere. Appropriation Category: Economic Support

Funds. Project Title: Cuba. Intended 2010 Obligation: $20,000,000". Found

at Accessed April 5, 2010.

[15] "The tragic event of the death of a prisoner as he was on a hunger

strike has resulted in a verbal war by the media in the United States, Spain

and other countries. This strong media campaign contributes to further

exacerbating the crisis. It is a form of media violence to which the Cuban

government responds in its own way". See "A Call for Dialogue: Interview

with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana". Originally published in

Palabra Nueva, journal of the archdiocese of Havana on April 19, 2010, and

subsequently translated and published in Progreso Weekly, May 4, 2010.

Found at

Accessed May 16, 2010.

[16] "Honduras: Human Rights and the Coup d'Etat". Inter-American Commission

on Human Rights. 2009. Retrieved 2 May, 2010 from

[17] Canadian Council for International Co-operation, "Honduras: Democracy

Denied. A Report from the CCIC's Americas Policy Group with recommendations

to the Government of Canada," Ottawa, April 2010, p. 16.

[18] Council on Hemispheric Affairs, "Washington's Invented Honduran

Democracy," April 22, 2010. Found at Accessed on

May 12, 2010. On April 26, 2010 Amnesty International issued a statement:

"Journalists in Honduras are at serious risk. Six journalists, all men, have been shot dead in the last eight weeks, and numerous others have

received death threats. No one has been held to account and no action taken

to support and protect journalists". See UA: 94/10, AI Index: AMR

37/006/2010, "Honduras: Journalists Killed".

[19] See search results for "murdered journalists, human rights abuses, Honduras". Retrieved 6 May, 2010 from See search

results for "murdered journalists, human rights abuses, Honduras". Retrieved

6 May, 2010 from See search results for "murdered

journalists, human rights abuses, Honduras". Retrieved 6 May, 2010 from See search results for "murdered journalists, human rights

abuses, Honduras". Retrieved 6 May, 2010 from See search

results for "murdered journalists, human rights abuses, Honduras". Retrieved

6 May, 2010 from

[20] See search results for "Hunger Strike, Cuba". Retrieved 6 May, 2010

from See search results for "Hunger Strike, Cuba".

Retrieved 6 May, 2010 from See search results for

"Hunger Strike, Cuba". Retrieved 6 May, 2010 from See search

results for "Hunger Strike, Cuba". Retrieved 6 May, 2010 from See search results for "Hunger Strike, Cuba". Retrieved 6

May, 2010 from

[21] See search results for "Ladies in White, Cuba". Retrieved 6 May, 2010

from See search results for "Ladies in White, Cuba".

Retrieved 6 May, 2010 from See search results for

"Ladies in White, Cuba". Retrieved 6 May, 2010 from See

search results for "Ladies in White, Cuba". Retrieved 6 May, 2010 from See search results for "Ladies in White, Cuba". Retrieved 6

May, 2010 from

[22] "Media Group: 17 Journalists Killed in April". The Washington Post. 28

April, 2010. Retrieved 6 May, 2010 from

[23] "White House Statement on Orlando Zapata Tamayo and the Ladies in

White," March 24, 2010. Found at

Accessed May 13, 2010.

[24] Clinton, Hillary Rodham. "US State Department - Secy. Of State Clinton:

On Nuclear Nonproliferation". Remarks on Nuclear Nonproliferation at the

University of Louisville as Part of the McConnell Center's Spring Lecture

Series. 9 April, 2010. Found at Accessed 15 May, 2010;

Weissert, Will. "Castro: Cuba Will Resist Hunger Strike 'Blackmail'".

Associated Press. 4 April, 2010.

[25] (Sheridan, Mary Beth. "U.S. Condemns Honduras Coup". The Washington

Post. 30 June, 2009. Retrieved 6 May, 2010 from


[26] Rothschild, Matthew. "Hillary Clinton's Honduran Disgrace." The

Progressive. March 5, 2010. Retrieved 7 May, 2010 from

[27] Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State, "World Press Freedom Day,"

May 3, 1010. Document located at Accessed May 3, 2010.

[28] National Lawyers Guild, "NLG Urges U.S. Media to Cease

Misrepresentation of Cuba's Human Rights Record," April 29, 2010. Found at Accessed April 29, 2010.

*Emily J. Kirk will be an M.A. student in Latin American Studies at

Cambridge University in September.

* John Kirk is a professor of Latin American Studies at Dalhousie

University, Canada.

Both are working on a project on Cuban medical internationalism

sponsored by Canada's Social Science and Humanities Research Council of

Canada (SSHRC). Professor Kirk co-wrote with Michael Erisman the 2009 book

"Cuba's Medical Internationalism: Origins, Evolution and Goals" (Palgrave

Macmillan). He spent most of February and March in El Salvador and

Guatemala, accompanying the Henry Reeve Brigade in El Salvador, and working

with the Brigada Medica Cubana in Guatemala.

| top | back | home |
Share on FacebookTweet this