As a member of the independent civil society group Laura Pollán: Su Legado (Legacy of Laura Pollán), 55-year-old Leonor Reyno Borges had suffered years of abuse, harassment, and violence from Cuban authorities. But nothing she suffered as an activist could compare to having to say good-bye to her son. As a result of Cuba’s socioeconomic struggles and climate of repression, Leonor says, “hundreds of thousands of Cuban mothers live with the pain of separating from their children and not knowing when they will be able to hold them again, because so many have had to emigrate and flee to different parts of the world.”
Leonor’s son, today 34 years old, had been targeted by police as a result of his mother’s activism. Police officers would come to his workplace, question him about his mother’s “counterrevolutionary” activities, and detain him arbitrarily. The pressure against him worsened until he decided to emigrate, leaving Leonor to reflect on how the Cuban State’s actions resulted in the separation of her family and many others.
19 years of activism
When Leonor looks back on the beginnings of her activism, she remembers the events of the Balsero (“Rafter”) Exodus of 1994, when many Cubans left the island on small boats and homemade rafts. She was working at the Hotel Nacional when she learned of the infamous sinking of the tugboat 13 de Marzo, in which 37 Cubans attempting to leave the island died. Eyewitnesses reported that Cuban ships may have been responsible for the sinking and for refusing to rescue some of the victims.
Leonor discussed the tragedy with a fellow worker and union member at the hotel, who defended the State’s actions. Leonor replied, “if you consider yourself a revolutionary and can say such things, I don’t want to be a revolutionary, because that would make me a killer.” Not long after, Leonor was fired from the hotel without explanation.
In 2000, Leonor began to join various opposition groups and human rights organizations. In 2007, she joined the Damas de Blanco, led at the time by Laura Pollán. She protested outside churches demanding the release of political prisoners, organized supply drives for prisoners’ families, and educated her community about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Universal Human Rights System.
Leonor also became an active member of the February 24th movement and the Nationalist Women of Cuba, both under the leadership of the Cuban Nationalist Party. As part of these groups, she participated in countless protests in order to, in her own words, “give the people a message of freedom, demand free elections, call for recognition of human rights and denounce unconstitutional abuses.”
Detention and conviction
With these protests came countless death threats, detentions, and nights in prison. “I was spending more time in cells than in my house,” Leonor remembers.
Most of the time, she was held for 12 to 72 hours before being released. That pattern ended on December 5, 2017, when Leonor and Rosario Morales organized a protest to speak out against security officials who were extorting street vendors, threatening to falsify charges that the vendors were selling without licenses. The two women led chants of “Down with corruption, up with human rights” and “Free the political prisoners.” Officers violently forced them into police cars and detained them.
The two activists were first sent to El Vivac Detainee Processing Center. After going on hunger strike for 12 days, they were let go without medical care; only the help of kind strangers allowed them to return home late that night.
Leonor was not called before a judge until 15 months later, on October 23, 2019, when she was summoned to the Havana Eastern Tribunal. She was tried quickly and convicted of “illicit economic activities,” “contempt” and “disobedience.” The charges carried a sentence of three years in prison; Leonor’s prison time was substituted for Correctional Labor. “I wasn’t allowed to present witnesses, I had to defend myself the best I could, three police officers all told lies against me, they were like robots all saying the exact same things,” Leonor remembers.
Leonor requested an appeal trial, as was her right under Cuban law. However, the Tribunal refused to allow her a fair hearing. Correctional authorities assigned Leonor, a licensed accountant, to work cleaning floors. Leonor had already been unable to find a job in accounting since she became a noted activist, as employers are afraid that they will face reprisals from State Security if they hire her.
Leonor told Race & Equality, “They warned me that if I didn’t carry out the work that they gave me, I would be sent to prison.”
Today, Leonor spends her days at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She had received a notice requiring her to begin her Correctional Labor at the end of February, but her sentence was postponed by the quarantine measures that were announced a few days later.
“If we stop our activism and lower our profile, State Security is going to roll over us like a steamroller. We will never stop, the pandemic has just put us on hold,” Leonor says. “I decided to defend my community and although it has cost me years of my life, and even if it costs me my life, I will continue raising my voice for human rights in Cuba.”