Cuban prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo's death from a hunger strike on Feb. 23, 2010, highlights the futility of most such protests against the Castro dictatorship. The moral complications of protest by suicide aside, hunger strikes against the regime are dangerous because unless its own direct interests are at risk, the Castros do not care whether hunger strikers live or die.
However, events in the year since Zapata's death, which was hastened by the homicidal intent of his jailers, are the best evidence that his protest, that his willingness to fight with his life because he had no other weapons, that his painful demise, were not in vain.
In fact, in death, Zapata has changed Cuba forever.
In death, Zapata highlighted for the world — or at least for anyone willing to listen — the cruelty of the system that for more than 52 years has imprisoned him and so many other Cubans because of their opposition to tyranny and commitment to democracy, freedom and human rights. As the pressure builds in some quarters of the United States and Europe to loosen or completely remove sanctions on the Castro regime, Zapata's death reminds that what proponents of normalization are in favor of is no less than to reward a gang of murderers who will never change.
And in death, Zapata revealed the character and commitment of those with the courage to stand up to that tyranny and to demand a better, freer nation.
The events subsequent to his death are proof that Zapata lives.
A day after he died, on Feb. 24, activist and independent journalist Guillermo Fariñas assumed Zapata's protest and started his own almost fatal hunger strike to demand the release of the sickest political prisoners.
And within days of his death, and still in mourning, Zapata's mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, took a position of honor in the Damas De Blanco, joining other mothers and wives and sisters in peacefully protesting for the release of their imprisoned loved ones. The Castroite mobs who jeered and assaulted them, only made them stronger.
Fariñas and the Damas were not alone, as their acts of resistance inspired Cubans and non-Cubans on the island and around the world to take to the streets and to the Internet to show their support and solidarity.
Together, Zapata's death, and what it inspired, put enough pressure on the Castro regime, with the assistance of the Catholic Church and the Spanish government, to cut a deal for the release of the 52 best-known political prisoners.
Zapata's life and death demonstrate that if those of us who say we are opposed to the Castros and committed to a free Cuba go beyond words and actually act on our positions, we, too, can help make history.
We, too, can help make a free Cuba.
That is not to say we need more hunger strikes, if only because Cuba needs heros like Zapata and Oscar Biscet and Guido Sigler and others in and out of the Castro gulag to live and fight for freedom.
And unlike Zapata and others in Cuban prisoners, we do have other ways to participate in the struggle.
We can write and blog and speak out for a free Cuba.
We can attend protests and other demonstrations, even if it's only "virtually" on Facebook or other social media. This week in particular, there will be many such opportunities with events designed to commemorate Zapata's death and to answer a call for Cubans to carry out Egypt-style protests on the island.
We can share Zapata's story.
We can make him proud.
Orlando Zapata Tamayo and Reina Luisa Tamayo and Guillermo Fariñas have changed Cuba, bringing it closer than ever to freedom.
If we follow their example, and make their courage and spirit our own, so can we.
Here is my video tribute to Orlando Zapata Tamayo, produced last year on the one-month anniversary of his death.