HAVANA — Cuban President Raul Castro issued an unprecedented statement of regret Wednesday over the death of a jailed dissident after a lengthy hunger strike that has sparked condemnation in Washington and in European capitals.
Official media said in a statement released to the foreign press and posted on a government Web site that the Cuban leader blamed the United States for the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, but did not explain how. That post was later taken down. In a video of Castro's comments obtained by The Associated Press, he did not appear to directly blame Washington.
"We took him to Cuba's best hospitals, and he died. We very much regret it," Castro said during a joint appearance with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Castro added that thousands of Cubans had died in the half-century conflict with the United States – but he did not explicitly link Zapata Tamayo to the conflict. Castro reiterated a desire to hold talks with the United States.
"The day the United States decides to live in peace with us, all these problems will end," Castro said.
"In half a century in Cuba there have been no extrajudicial executions. There is torture here, but only at the base at Guantanamo, not where the revolution is in control," Castro added, referring to the U.S. military base in eastern Cuba used to jail terrorism suspects.
Cuban officials almost never comment on dissident activity, which they view as illegitimate and a creation of Washington. Castro weighing in personally was a first.
Zapata Tamayo, little known before his death, had been jailed since 2003 on charges including disrespecting authority. He died Tuesday at a hospital in the capital, becoming the first imprisoned opposition figure to die after a hunger strike in nearly four decades.
Several leading dissidents traveled from Havana to his hometown of Banes, 560 miles (900 kilometers) east of the capital, for a wake and funeral.
Well-known dissident Vladimiro Roca said plainclothes security officials watched Wednesday's wake but did not intervene.
Asked about Castro's statement, he said: "That is complete cynicism. They let Zapata Tamayo die."
Human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez said authorities in eastern Cuba detained dozens of activists, preventing some from attending funeral services – but that claim could not immediately be confirmed with police or the government.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States had urged Cuban officials to give Zapata Tamayo medical attention. She also offered condolences to his family.
"We are deeply distressed by his death during a hunger strike on behalf of his rights and to send a signal about the political prisoner situation and oppression in Cuba," she said during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
Earlier, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said U.S. diplomats who were in Havana last week for migration talks raised the case with their Cuban counterparts.
"Mr. Orlando Zapata Tamayo's death highlights the injustice of Cuba's holding more than 200 political prisoners who should now be released without delay," Crowley said.
In Brussels, spokesman John Clancy said the European Union regrets the death and called on Cuba to free all political prisoners. Human rights on the island "remain a key priority for the EU," Clancy said.
Amnesty International called for an investigation into whether poor prison conditions played any part in the death.
Spain, whose socialist government has been seeking to improve European relations with Cuba since it took over the rotating EU presidency in January, said it was shocked.
"The Spanish government profoundly deplores the death of Orlando – the death of a human rights defender in Cuba," Deputy Prime Minister Manuel Chaves said. "There is a deficit of human rights in that country."
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero expressed dismay and said Paris had called on Cuba to release Zapato Tamayo. The British Embassy in Havana did not mention the case specifically, but said it was "worried about human rights abuses and due legal process in Cuba."
Official reaction was muted in Latin America, whose governments this week held a "unity summit" that included Raul Castro and that unanimously denounced the 48-year-old U.S. embargo of the island.
Cuba describes the dissidents as paid U.S. stooges and says Washington greatly exaggerates their numbers and influence.
In the statement, Castro said Zapata Tamayo's death "is a result of the relationship with the United States." It was not clear what he meant.
When the visiting U.S. diplomats held a reception for about 40 dissidents last week, Cuba put out an angry statement saying the meeting proved that Washington is out to overthrow the government.
On Wednesday, veteran dissidents were joined by a relatively new voice: the son of revolutionary hero Juan Almeida Bosque, who fought alongside Fidel Castro in the guerrilla uprising that brought down dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
Juan Juan Almeida Garcia posted an open letter on his daughter's Facebook page saying Raul Castro should be embarrassed by the death.
"Must we go to such extremes? ... I beg of you to resign. Get out of this country. You don't deserve respect," he wrote. The younger Almeida was briefly jailed in November after petitioning for permission to travel to the United States for medical care.
Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said Zapata Tamayo was arrested in 2003 and held for months without charge before being sentenced to three years for disrespecting police authority.
Zapata Tamayo, a 42-year-old builder, was subsequently sentenced to 25 years for activism behind bars, Sanchez said. He was one of a small number of Afro-Cubans in the island's tiny dissident community.
As of January, Sanchez's commission counted 201 political prisoners in Cuban jails. Cuba says it holds none.
Sanchez said Zapata Tamayo stopped accepting solid food Dec. 3, drinking only water and a few other liquids, some of which were forced on him by authorities. He was transferred to Kilo 8 Prison in Camaguey and placed in solitary confinement, where he continued to refuse food, Sanchez said.
Zapata Tamayo was taken earlier this month to Havana's Combinado del Este prison, where he received some treatment in a clinic, then was transferred to Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras the day before his death.
Sanchez said the last Cuban dissident to die in prison was Pedro Luis Boitel, a poet who passed away after a 53-day hunger strike in 1972.
Associated Press writers Will Weissert and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana, Jorge Sainz in Madrid, Jamey Keaten in Paris, Robert Wielaard in Brussels and Desmond Butler in Washington contributed to this report.