Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO – Last week came news was that Orlando Zapata, a Cuban dissident, committed the undiplomatic gaffe of dying of hunger on the very day when Brazil’s President Lula was hobnobbing with the local great (Fidel) and the near-great (Raul). Mr. Zapata had been on a three month hunger strike protesting conditions in the Cuban jail where he and a number of other political prisoners were held.
One surprising thing happened in the midst of several unsurprising things: to everyone’s astonishment, Raul said he regretted Mr. Zapata’s death, and appeared sincere – perhaps his brother’s frail grasp on mortality is humanizing him. Unsurprisingly, he lamented the fact that the US had caused this death by encouraging delinquent rabble-rousers such as Mr. Zapata. The US, unsurprisingly, called on Cuba to release its political prisoners. The rest of the world, unsurprisingly, called on the US to release its own political prisoners in Cuba. Fidel and Lula, unsurprisingly, said nothing at all. Diplomacy, unsurprisingly, has always trumped humanity.
Putting aside political questions, the episode raises questions about the morals of hunger strikes for two reasons: first, because Mr. Zapata had the courage of his convictions, and second, because the Cuban government allowed him to die.
To say Mr. Zapata “had the courage of his convictions” distinguishes his sincere hunger strike from those which are mere publicity stunts, e.g. former Rio Governor Garotinho going on a hunger strike because TV Globo wouldn’t give his campaign media coverage, or the bishop in Bahia whose cause was the diversion of the Rio Sao Francisco, or Cesare Battisti whose cause was his very own non-extradition. However, from the moral standpoint, the quoted phrase is a euphemism for “he committed suicide.” The fact is, Mr. Zapata willingly and knowingly killed himself.
The Curmudgeon regards suicide as a sin, and sin ought not to be encouraged. Most Western legal systems regard suicide as a crime, and crime is not to be encouraged. Therefore the Curmudgeon is against sincere hunger strikes, whose ultimate objective – suicide – is both sinful and criminal. The Curmudgeon sees no moral difference between a prisoner who holds a guard captive and threatens to kill him if jail conditions are not improved, and a prisoner who threatens to kill himself if jail conditions are not improved.
Furthermore, he is against those who aid and abet such behavior, starting with governments which allow would-be suicides to die. A government which did nothing to stop our hypothetical prisoner from killing the guard would have acted immorally. Therefore, the Curmudgeon has long applauded those governments which do not encourage suicide, but rather force feed and hydrate prisoners on long-term hunger strikes, so that they remain alive.
The Curmudgeon knows his is not a unanimous or even a popular position. He knows the American Medical Association says that force feeding prisoners on hunger strikes is equivalent to torture and holds that doctors who participate in this violate their ethical obligations. He also knows that governments which force feed prisoners on hunger strikes do so not for moral or ethical reasons, but rather out of a purely political desire to avoid creating martyrs.
The Curmudgeon regards the AMA position as a mockery of the Hippocratic Oath, in that it would punish doctors who seek to preserve human life. The Curmudgeon regards the turpid political motives of governments which resuscitate hunger strikers as strictly irrelevant – the end result is that human life has been preserved.
To sum up: people should not take their own lives, and other people should not assist them. Governments and doctors have a positive obligation to prevent persons under their control from taking their own lives. Mr. Zapata was wrong to take his own life. The Cuban government was wrong to allow him to do so.
POSTSCRIPT. Once out of Cuba, Lula spoke. He lamented the death of Mr. Zapata, but would not be drawn into criticizing the Cuban government over the incident. He flatly denied having received any communication from Cuban dissidents asking him to intercede on their behalf or to meet Mr. Zapata, saying he would have done so had he received any letter. He reminded the press that he was completely contrary to hunger strikes, ever since he had engaged in one and the Roman Catholic Church had convinced him to desist. The record is replete with instances where Lula has advised hunger strikers to desist – the Bishop and Battisti among others. Therefore, the Curmudgeon salutes him.
Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, moved here thirty-plus years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)