Mexican President Felipe Calderón wore a broad smile as he warmly greeted Cuba's Raúl Castro at the Rio Group summit on the posh Mexican Riviera last week. The two men, dressed in neatly pressed guayabera shirts, shook hands as Mr. Calderón, with no small measure of delight, gestured to his audience to welcome Mexico's very special guest.
A mere 300 miles away, in a military prison hospital in Havana, political prisoner Orlando Zapata lay in a coma. For 84 days the 42-year-old stone mason of humble origins had been on a hunger strike to protest the Castro regime's brutality toward prisoners of conscience. His death was imminent.
Zapata's grim condition was no secret. During his strike, for 18 days, he had been denied water and placed in front of an air conditioner. His kidneys had failed and he had pneumonia. For months human-rights groups had been pleading for international attention to his case.
But over at the Playa del Carmen resort on the Yucatán, Mr. Calderón wasn't about to let Zapata spoil his fiesta, or his chance to improve his image among the region's undemocratic governments. The summit went on as planned with no mention of Havana's human-rights hell. On Tuesday Zapata passed away.
Zapata's death while Latin American leaders broke bread with Castro is a coincidence that captures the cowardice and expediency toward Cuban oppression that has defined the region for a half century. Now the Latin gang, with Cuba as a prominent member, has decided to form a new regional body to "replace" the Organization of American States. To make their intentions clear, they banned Honduras's democratically elected President Porfirio Lobo from last week's meeting.
The Mexican foreign ministry did not respond to several requests last week for a statement from Mr. Calderón on Zapata's death. Its silence suggests that the only thing the Mexican president regrets is the unfortunate timing of the dissident's demise.
Yet Zapata hasn't gone quietly. His passing has once more elevated the truth about the lives of 11 million Cubans enslaved for the last 50 years under a totalitarian regime. And it has embarrassed the likes of Mr. Calderón. Newspapers across the globe, from Buenos Aires to Madrid, are denouncing the mind-boggling hypocrisy of those who feign concern for human rights while embracing Castro.
Like most Cuban dissidents, Zapata did not so much choose his role as martyr as it chose him. Born in the province of Holguin in the eastern part of the country, he moved through the Cuban education system as any ordinary citizen.
But the requisite Marxist indoctrination didn't take. Like so many Cuban patriots before him, once his conscience had been awakened no measure of cruelty could stop him from speaking out.
Zapata became part of a wave of peaceful resistance that began to organize and grow bolder in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was detained three times in 2002. According to Miami's Cuban Democratic Directorate, which tracks dissident activity, he was arrested for a fourth time on Dec. 6, 2002, "along with [the prominent pacifist and medical doctor] Oscar Elías Biscet."
Dr. Biscet, a devout Catholic and disciple of Martin Luther King Jr.'s adherence to nonviolence, began opposing the regime when he learned of its policy of suffocating babies who survived abortions. Today he is considered one of the island's most important human-rights defenders. His continuing imprisonment and torture are well documented. It is not known whether Mr. Calderón, who also describes himself as a Catholic, discussed Mr. Biscet's plight with his guest Raúl
Zapata was arrested again in March 2003 along with 74 others in what the resistance calls the "black spring." This time he was held and in May 2004 he was sentenced to 25 years. But his commitment to his brethren never wavered. Indeed, it deepened.
In July 2005, at the Taco Taco prison, he took part in a nonviolent protest marking the 1994 massacre of 41 Cubans who had tried to flee the island on a tugboat and were drowned by state security. That got him another 15 years in the clink.
Zapata was judged guilty of "disobedience to authority" and was repeatedly tortured. But he died a free man, unbroken and unwilling to give up his soul to the regime, which is more than can be said for Mr. Calderón. Word is that Mr. Calderón noticed the offshore drilling contracts Castro has given to Brazil's Petrobras and is cuddling up to the dictator in hopes that Mexico's Pemex will be next.
As to Cuban freedom, the yearning lives on, and Zapata's death is already serving as a source of renewed inspiration to the movement. The regime knows this, which is why state security put his hometown on lockdown the day of his funeral. Even as Cubans mourn their loss, it is certain that, treasuring his personal triumph over evil and his gift of bravery to the nation, they will not let his death be in vain.
Write to O'Grady@wsj.com