Women deprived of liberty in Cuba are subjected to inhumane treatment and violations of their basic human rights in prison. Jacqueline Heredia is living proof of this abuse. Her story also reveals the particular violence faced by two of Cuba’s most vulnerable groups: opositores [members of political opposition groups] and people living with HIV.
Jacqueline, 40, is an activist who spent 16 months in San José prison, located on the outskirts of Havana. San José houses both male and female prisoners with HIV. “[The prison] is tough, and it never receives any attention. The treatment there is discriminatory, the guards and doctors treat the inmates as if they had the plague,” she says.
Despite being housed in a prison specifically for those with HIV, Jacqueline never received anti-retroviral medications while she was incarcerated. She was denied access to a healthful diet, attacked by other prisoners and denied her right to phone calls or family visits. She remembers living in an overcrowded cell with poor ventilation, saying, “it hurts so much to think about when I was there.”
Jacqueline has been a member of the National Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) for the past six years and of the Damas de Blanco for the past five. In that time, she has been a regular attendee at protests, demanding freedom for political prisoners and denouncing human rights violations.
“I decided to become an opositora because of the many injustices that occur in Cuba. I saw so many leaders living well while the people were poor and repressed,” comments Jacqueline, who experienced first-hand the exclusion and violence that comes with such beliefs.
When Jacqueline was six years old, her father Ulises Heredia Yovi was killed by police in their home. Although he did not belong to an opposition group, Ulises had always spoken publicly about his beliefs. “That’s how it was when you thought differently, even more so in those days [the mid-1980s],” Jacqueline recounts.
Jacqueline, her mother and her brother went through difficult times after her father’s death, sometimes without enough money even to eat. Jacqueline did not have the means to study for a degree and began to work at a young age to help support the family.
Based on her experiences, Jacqueline believes that Cubans should have the rights to work, to basic sustenance and to “live in peace.” These beliefs led her to join UNPACU and the Damas, but these activities have led to repression. She has been detained for 24 to 48 hours on various occasions and was once beaten with hoses by police officers.
On April 15, 2016, Jacqueline experienced a whole new side of Cuba’s repressive apparatus.
That morning, Jacqueline was in Fraternidad Park with three Damas de Blanco (Xiomara Cruz, Marieta Martinez and Yunet Cairo). Several agents of the State Security forces detained them, brought them in for processing, and sent them to El Vivac detainee processing center, where they were held for 17 days.
While the other three women would eventually be sent to El Guatao prison, Jacqueline was sent to San José due to her HIV status.
A year after her arrest, in May 2017, Cuban authorities finally summoned Jacqueline to the Central Havana Tribunal, where they accused her of “contempt” and “assault” against the police officers. In June, Jacqueline and her three companions went on trial in the San José Tribunal, where they were sentenced to three years.
Some months after being sentenced, Jacqueline fell ill, but prison authorities refused to provide her with medical attention. She was put in a cell with people suffering from tuberculosis, which she soon contracted as well. Jacqueline began to receive medical treatment, but her condition deteriorated so quickly that she was sent home on furlough.
“I was dying in prison. They sent me home, as if I was going home to die, but God willed that I recover, and I spent the rest of my sentence on house arrest,” says Jacqueline, who finished her sentence in April 2019.
Since then, Jacqueline has been detained “countless times.” “They detain me at opposition activities, on the street corner, in the park, wherever and whenever they want to give me a hard time. It can be any day, any time,” she says. Most recently, she was arrested just before Mothers’ Day.
Jacqueline’s two children, aged 9 and 12, struggle to understand her situation. Carlos Alberto Alvares, their father and Jacqueline’s husband, is also a member of UNPACU and has been arrested several times. Their children have grown to fear the police, says Jacqueline, especially after an incident in which they were detained along with her.
Reflecting on her children’s situation, Jacqueline says, “It’s torturous for the children, and even worse because they don’t understand what’s going on…their mother is detained even if she hasn’t committed a crime, just because she thinks differently.”