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Cuban hunger striker remembered on anniversary of death

By Shasta Darlington, CNN
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Remembering hunger striker who died
  • Bricklayer's act began domino effect
  • Raul Castro has released other political dissidents
  • But dead man's mother says she's still harassed by government
  • Cuba
  • Political Dissent

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- When jailed Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo went on a hunger strike to demand better prisoner conditions, only a handful of government opponents knew who he was.

A bricklayer from eastern Cuba who became a political activist while in prison, Zapata fasted for more than 80 days.

On February 23, 2010 he died, setting off a chain of events that few could have predicted.

By July, Cuba had agreed to the biggest release of political prisoners in more than a decade.

Prominent dissident Angel Moya was freed earlier this month. He recently went to Mass with the Ladies in White, the wives, mothers and supporters of political prisoners.

"Zapata vive (lives)!" he shouted as he emerged sobbing from the Havana church.

"They got him, but Cuba is going to be free no matter what Fidel and Raul Castro want."

After Zapata's death, fellow activist Guillermo Farinas took up his cause, declaring he would starve himself to death unless Cuba released ailing political prisoners.

He spent months in the hospital on an IV drip.

The Cuban government accuses dissidents of being mercenaries paid by Washington to destabilize the island.

In the case of Farinas, state media accused him of assaulting colleagues in the past and highlighted the top treatment he was getting from the state-run hospital despite his "counter-revolutionary" activities.

But faced with international pressure, President Raul Castro reached a deal with the Catholic Church and Spain to release 52 dissidents jailed in a notorious crackdown in 2003.

Farinas was detained on Wednesday for protesting, according to his mother.

Hector Maseda was also released earlier this month. He thanks Farinas' hunger strike for the deal.

"He convinced the Cuban authorities that there was going to be a second martyr at any moment," he told CNN. "And this was a martyr who was very well known as a political activist."

Dozens of prisoner who agreed to go into exile in Spain were freed. Others refused to leave, but Cuba recently began to free them as well. Only six of the 52 remain behind bars.

Still, some things haven't changed.

On Wednesday, police cordoned off the street where the Ladies in White were holding a candle-lit vigil in the center of Havana.

Hundreds of government supporters surrounded the house and shouted slogans like "This street belongs to Fidel!"

Human rights groups said dozens of people were detained on the eve of the anniversary and dozens more were ordered to stay in their homes or face arrest.

Amnesty International urged Cuba to stop harassing Zapata's family.

His mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, says she is regularly attacked and intimidated by police and government supporters when she leads marches to the cemetery on Sundays.

But on Wednesday she told CNN that she and her family visited the cemetery without incident.

"There are police all around, but today nobody bothered us," she said.