February 27, 2010 / 1:24 AM / 9 years ago

Prisoner death a setback in Cuba-U.S. relations

HAVANA (Reuters) - When Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died this week after an 85-day hunger strike, hopes for near-term improvement in U.S.-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 an American contractor in Cuba and made the political climate tougher for diplomatic and legislative moves to improve ties with the island, they said.

“For the time being all bets are off regarding further progress in U.S.-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 United States must not appease the government of President Raul Castro by easing the 48-year trade embargo against the island, the cornerstone of U.S.-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,” said Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.

Zapata’s death makes it harder for supporters of a thaw in relations with Cuba to make their central argument — that the best way to encourage change in Cuba is to get closer to the island.

Coincidentally, new legislation was proposed on the day of Zapata’s death that would do just that by ending a general ban on U.S. travel to Cuba and making it easier for Cuba to buy food from the United States.

“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 of Massachusetts said in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“We need to travel freely to the island to meet and learn from them, and them from us,” he said.

In the same statement, McGovern expressed his “deepest sorrow and outrage” at Zapata’s death, saying the Cuban government could have intervened to prevent it.

Spain is facing a similar problem. Spain, which is currently presiding over the European Union, has pushed to remove a clause from the EU’s common position on Cuba urging democracy and greater respect for human rights on the island.

Havana has said the clause is an obstacle to full normal relations with the 27-nation bloc.

NAIL IN COFFIN

Under pressure from Spanish media, 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 said in the Spanish parliament.

Perez-Stable said Zapata’s death would likely put the nail in the coffin of Spain’s efforts to improve EU-Cuba ties.

“Havana should forget about the EU lifting the common position,” she said.

Cuba watchers said the dissident’s death was a setback for the Cuban government’s diplomatic efforts to bring pressure to bear on the United States to drop the embargo.

Cuba’s small dissident community, meanwhile, vowed to step up demands for democratic change on the island, so that Zapata will not have died in vain.

On Friday, five dissidents — four of them currently in prison — announced they had begun hunger strikes aimed at forcing the government to free political prisoners.

“This death weighs on the heart of all of us,” said leading dissident Oswaldo Paya.

“This is a before and after. We’re not going to use violence, but the government is sending a dangerous message to the Cuban people,” Paya said.

Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington; editing by Jeff Franks and Tom Brown

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