Washington, D.C.; October 27, 2020.- Margarette May Macaulay, Rapporteur on Women’s Rights at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), joined representatives from Cuba’s independent civil society to demand an end to the persecution and criminalization of female activists in Cuba while committing to continue documenting and denouncing human rights violations.
Commissioner Macaulay and three members of the renowned Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) served as panelists during the webinar ¡Cubanas Libres Ya! The Situation of Female Political Prisoners in Cuba on Tuesday, October 27th. The webinar was organized by the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality) as part of the #CubanasLibresYa (Free Cuban Women Now) campaign, which began in March 2020 and has brought to light the realities of violence, persecution, and criminalization facing Cuban women who demand human rights and dignified living conditions for all Cubans.
In his welcoming remarks, Race and Equality’s Executive Director Carlos Quesada stressed that the Cuban state utilizes the country’s Criminal Code to criminalize those who express opinions against the government, a blatant violation of its international obligations to respect and protect human rights. “Specifically, authorities can charge activists with crimes or concepts that are not clearly defined in the Code, such as ‘contempt,’ ‘assault,’ or ‘social dangerousness,’” he pointed out.
Race and Equality’s Director of Programs, Christina Fetterhoff, serving as moderator, stated that between January and September of this year, the Cuban Human Rights Observatory (OCDH) recorded 1,249 arbitrary detentions, including 367 detentions of women. She also shared that there are currently at least 10 women in prison, serving house arrest, or performing ‘corrective labor’ for political motives.
Caitlin Kelly, Race and Equality’s Latin America Legal Program Officer, shared that although precise data is difficult to gather, the marginalization and poverty afflicting Cuban women is undeniable. In response to these injustices, Cuban women have taken great strides in advocacy and activism to demand change. “However,” she went on, “as the IACHR has recognized, freedom of expression is non-existent in Cuba. State Security forces, the police, the Rapid Response Brigades, and other authorities violently break up protests and look for pretexts to imprison the participants.”
Race and Equality’s documentary video about the situation of female political prisoners made its debut during the event. Afterwards, Berta Soler, leader of the Damas de Blanco, and former political prisoners Yolanda Santana and Xiomara Cruz Miranda shared their personal experiences. Internet connectivity issues made it difficult to sustain a conversation, but phone connections and pre-recorded videos prepared by the women allowed the three to share their testimonies.
Ms. Soler explained that in the last five years, she has been detained over 200 times, sometimes suffering three arbitrary detentions in a single week. “I remember that during one arrest, two police officers used a chokehold on me while one of them gauged my eyes, causing one of my eyes to fill with blood. They kept me in a cell for over 24 hours without water to drink or running water for sanitary purposes, nor did I have anything to eat,” she related. She also shared that she had most recently been arrested on September 8th of this year, during events and protests marking the feast of Our Lady of Charity, a major national holiday.
Yolanda Santana, one of the women profiled by Race and Equality during the #CubanasLibresYa campaign, recounted that since joining the Damas de Blanco, she has received dozens of arbitrary fines from the authorities – the total amount she owes would be impossible to pay. In July 2018, she was detained for failing to pay her fines and put on trial without the right to present a defense. She spent a year in El Guatao women’s prison, where she suffered inhumane and degrading treatment.
Xiomara Cruz Miranda joined the event virtually from Miami, where she has resided since being granted a humanitarian visa early this year. The visa was granted after she fell deathly ill in prison, where she was being held as a political prisoner. She made clear during the event that her illness was produced by mistreatment in prison and the lack of adequate healthcare in Cuban hospitals.
Ms. Cruz has been a political prisoner twice. In April 2016, she was arrested in a Havana park along with three other activists and detained in El Guatao prison for a year and eight months before standing trial. She was eventually granted conditional release but was arrested again in September 2018 and sentenced to another year and four months for supposed “threats” against a neighbor who provoked a confrontation by throwing stones at her house.
An unacceptable situation
IACHR Commissioner and Rapporteur on the Rights of Women Margarette May Macaulay expressed her concern at the persecution and criminalization described by Cuban activists. She remarked that although the number of women in prison is relatively small compared to that of men, the effects of incarceration are extremely harmful for these women, their families, and their communities.
Commissioner Macaulay made clear that the situation is unacceptable and “must end,” listing several regional and international human rights standards on the treatment of persons deprived of liberty that the State of Cuba is violating. Among these are the obligations to act without discrimination and to provide those in detention with hygiene and dignified living conditions.
The Commissioner also emphasized that her office and the entire IACHR will continue to monitor the human rights situation in Cuba, inviting local and international civil society organizations to document human rights violation and report them to the Commission. She expressed her hope that the current government will end its use of arbitrary detentions, respect the right to freedom of expression, and allow free access to information.
Race and Equality also stands firm in our commitment to monitor the situation of political prisoners in Cuba, denounce abuses, and work with local activists to demand that Cuba comply with its international human rights obligations. We invite all those interested to visit the #CubanasLibresYa campaign website (cubanaslibresya.com in Spanish and cubanaslibresyaeng.com in English)
The Cubanas Libres Ya documentary is available for viewing here: https://youtu.be/gTQcFGute4g