For more than half a century western political leaders and their corporate media have waged a disinformation war against socialist Cuba. Nor is there any sign that they are easing up. A recent example is the case of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, an inmate who died in a Cuban prison in February 2010 after an 82-day hunger strike. 

Zapata’s death sparked an outcry from western capitalist media and official sources, including of course the United States. Almost without exception, in literally thousands of reports the corporate media portrayed him as a “political prisoner” and a “political dissident” — without offering any supporting specifics. In March 2010 the European Union voted to condemn Cuba for his demise.

Since 2004, Amnesty International has treated Zapata Tamayo as one of Cuba’s 75 “prisoners of conscience,” without offering evidence to buttress this assertion. Like the western media, Amnesty failed to specify what were the political activities that had led to Zapata’s imprisonment.

An Amnesty International article (24 February 2010) stated that in May 2004 Zapata Tamayo was sentenced to three years in prison for “public disorder” and “resistance.”   According to some reports he launched his hunger strike not only to protest his conditions of detention but to demand a personal kitchen in his cell, a television set, and a cell phone, amenities that were not likely to materialize. Â

Zapata was subsequently tried several times on charges of assaulting guards and “disorder in a penal establishment.” The offenses began to add up. At the time of his fast he was facing a total sentence of 36 years. Again Amnesty made no mention of any political activities. Â

Cuban doctors attempted to keep Zapata alive with intravenous feedings and other stratagems. One psychologist testified that she tried to convince him to cease the hunger strike and try to register his grievances by other means. Zapata’s mother remarked that her son had the best Cuban doctors at his bedside and she thanked them for their assistance. Later she would change her story and claim that he was a “dissident” who had been mistreated.

According to the Cuban writer Enrique Ubieta Gomez,  Zapata was a common criminal who was convicted of “unlawful break-in” (1993), “assault” (2000), “fraud” (2000), and “public disorder” (2002). One of his serious transgressions occurred in 2000 when he attacked someone named Leonardo Simón with a machete, fracturing his skull and inflicting other injuries.  

Ubieta Gomez concluded that Zapata had been involved in a wide range of criminal doings, none of which were remotely political. 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.  

Despite this extensive rap sheet Zapata was paroled in March 2003, eleven days before the arrests of the 75 so-called “prisoners of conscience.” Later that same month he was charged with another crime and imprisoned for parole violation. Â

To repeat: while his 2003 arrest happened to come within days of the imprisonment of the 75, Zapata was never part of that group. The Cuban government never accused him of conspiring with—or accepting funds and materials from—a foreign power, charges that were leveled against the 75.  

Contrary to what was claimed by the Spanish news agency EFE, Zapata’s name does not appear on the list of the 75 Cuban prisoners drawn up by the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 2003. Â

Since 2003, at least 20 of the 75 have been released due to health problems, shrinking the number still incarcerated to 55—a level of humanitarian leniency not likely to be emulated in the US criminal justice system. Apparently this news has yet to reach the US media. As of 17 March 2010 the New York Times still referred to the “imprisonment of 75 dissidents.” Even more recently (5 April 2010) an NPR commentator referred to the “75 dissidents being held in Cuba’s prisons.” Â

The Cuban government argues that to describe the 75 (or 55) as being “prisoners of conscience” or “political dissidents” is to misrepresent the issue. They were never tried for holding dissenting views but for unlawfully collaborating with a hostile foreign power, receiving funds and materials from the US interest section, with the intent to subvert the existing political system in Cuba. Â

Many countries have such laws, including the USA. As Arnold August points out, the US Penal Code, under Chapter 115 entitled “Treason, Sedition, and Subversion,” Section 2381 stipulates that any US citizen who “adheres to” or gives “aid and comfort . . . within the United States or elsewhere” to a country that US authorities consider to be an enemy “is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000.” So too, Cuba has legislation directed at those who are funded by hostile foreign powers.  

In comparison to the media’s tidal outcry on behalf of Cubans imprisoned in Cuba, consider the coverage accorded the five Cubans imprisoned in the United States. During almost 12 years of incarceration, the Cuban Five have been largely ignored by the corporate media and consequently remain mostly unknown to the US public.

The Five possessed no weapons and committed no act of terror, sabotage or espionage. Gerardo Hernandez, Fernando Gonzalez, Ramon Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Rene Gonzalez came to the United States during the 1990s to infiltrate and monitor the terrorist activities of private right-wing groups of Cuban exiles. The information they gathered in their undercover work was forwarded to the Cuban government which in turn passed much of it on to the US government with the understanding that the two nations were now supposedly cooperating in a war against terrorism.

In 1998 after receiving evidence of impending terrorist activities planned against Cuba, the FBI went into action. But instead of arresting the right-wing Cubans who were planning the attacks from US soil, the feds apprehended the five Cubans who were working at uncovering such plots.

The five were tried in a federal court in Miami, home to over half a million Cuban exiles. Miami is a community with a long history of hostility toward the Cuban government—a record that a federal appellate court in the United States later described as a “perfect storm” of prejudice, designed to make a fair trial impossible.

The Cuban Five were kept in solitary confinement for 17 months, denied their right to bail and the right to a change of venue. After the longest trial in the history of the United States, they were sentenced by a jury in Miami to four life sentences plus 77 years collectively. The US public outside Miami heard next to nothing about this case—in striking contrast to the lavish treatment later accorded to Zapata Tamayo.  Â

Of those who have managed to hear about the Cuban Five through alternative channels, many have denounced the unfair and unwarranted convictions. On March 6, 2009 in an unprecedented show of support, twelve amicus briefs called upon the US Supreme Court to review the case. Numbering among the Cuban Five’s supporters were ten Nobel Prize winners, the entire Mexican Senate, the National Assembly of Panama, members from every political group within the European Parliament, including three current vice-presidents and two former Presidents, and hundreds of lawmakers from Brazil, Belgium, Chile, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Scotland and the United Kingdom.

In 2009 the US Supreme Court, giving no reason, refused to review the case, and the US corporate media continued to ignore it. Meanwhile the Cuban Five, hailed in Cuba as heroes defending their homeland against US sponsored terrorism, continue to serve inflated sentences in US prisons on trumped-up charges. Â

If US rulers really are interested in fighting oppression and injustice, they might start closer to home. Thus far President Barrack Obama has shown no interest in the case. (Why does this not surprise us?) But other more genuine souls at home and abroad continue to press for justice.

Michael Parenti’s most recent books are God and His Demons (Prometheus, 2010) and Contrary Notions (City Lights, 2007).

Alicia Jrapko is the coordinator in the US of the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban Five.