Orlando Zapata Tamayo's Mother Brings His Ashes, And His Fight For a Free Cuba, to Miami

Shortly after arriving on U.S. Thursday, Reina Luisa Tamayo stoically carried her son’s ashes in a wooden box, a Cuban flag draped over it.

“Zapata Vive!” she chanted.

The mother of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the Cuban dissident who died while in the midst of a hunger strike last year, has spent her first 24 hours in exile vowing to carry on her son’s fight for liberty for the people in Cuba.

“From this country of liberty,” said the 62-year-old on Friday, “I will relentlessly fight for the Cuban people’s right to freedom and democracy which my son so much dreamed of.”

Tamayo, who spoke at a press conference in Miami, arrived at Miami International Airport Thursday afternoon, greeted by banners and flag-waving members of the Cuban exile community.

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At the airport, she stood briefly before the press to thank the people of the United States “for permitting me to bring my son’s ashes to this country so that he may rest here in peace.”

The woman from the eastern city of Banes appeared tired and was quickly whisked away along with 12 other family members to a waiting car outside the airport terminal.  

On Friday morning, Tamayo spoke of the severe oppression she, her other children and grandchildren suffered at the hands of the Castro regime.

“This whole process has been very difficult up until the last minute, but we have endured it,” she said at the conference, which was held at the offices of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, one of several organizations which advocated for Tamayo’s release from Cuba.

Tamayo emphatically denounced Cuba’s dictators, Fidel and Raul Castro.

“The Castro brothers abused and brutally beat my son to death,” Tamayo said.

She spoke of how her remaining four children, daughters-in-law, son-in-law and three grandchildren -- ages 12, 14, and 17 -- were objects of the Castro tyranny.  

“They assassinated my son and wanted to assassinate me and my family,” she said. “And the message I would like to send to them the Castros, ‘Down with Fidel. Down with Raul. Viva Cuba Libre without a dictatorship!’”

Zapata was 42 when he died in February of 2008 after an 85-day hunger strike.  

He was serving a long jail sentence for what the Cuban government said were crimes, such as disobedience and contempt, when he launched his hunger strike for improved prison conditions.  

His mother fought to have his remains exhumed in Banes, where the family is from, and cremated in Havana so that she could bring them to Miami.  

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R), Rep. David Rivera (R) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) were instrumental in helping the Tamayo family leave Cuba and be resettled in Miami. 

“This is a family of freedom fighters,” Diaz-Balart said. “ They were harassed everyday and couldn’t leave their house. She couldn’t even go to her son’s grave.”

The Tamayo family is considering placing the dissident’s remains in a mausoleum at the monument to the fallen members of the Brigade 2506, who died during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1962.

In Miami, the International Rescue Committee said the family would be settled in four apartments, assisted with essentials such as clothes and food, English classes and job placement help. The group gives aid to victims of humanitarian crises and helps resettle refugees worldwide.

Zapata’s mother, meanwhile, still has dreams for her son to someday be in a free Cuba.

“I hope to return my son’s ashes to his birthplace someday,” she said.

Cristina Puig is a freelance reporter based in Miami.

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