Yolanda Carmenate has spent 30 years as a political activist, professed religious believer, and human rights defender in Cuba. For those same 30 years, she has been harassed, mistreated and persecuted countless times by Cuban authorities. When asked about the details, the 63-year old activist replies that there are “too many incidents to specify the exact dates.”
But the numerous press reports, judicial records, and fines in Yolanda’s name are all souvenirs of her persecution. Currently, Yolanda, a native of Las Tunas province, is a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) and promotes the campaign “Cuba Decides” (CubaDecide), which seeks greater democratic participation for Cuban citizens, especially through voting and election reforms. She is also a parishioner of San Jerónimo Catholic Church. In retaliation for her activism, she has been put on trial and convicted twice. She now lives under constant threats from the authorities to detain her again.
Yolanda is a trained accountant, but she has had to forgo her career in the public sector now that she is labeled as “not politically trustworthy.” “What motivates me to be a member of the opposition,” she says, “is my unwillingness to accept the [Cuban] system, which labels those who think and act differently as inferior.”
In 2006, after being unable to find work, Yolanda started her own business selling handicrafts at a stand. Although Yolanda was one of the first women to open a legal private business, officials would consistently assign her the stalls furthest away from the plaza center – a tactic to hurt her sales and keep her away from central tourist spots, where foreigners would occasionally ask her about the situation in Cuba. “My opposition to the system made it inconvenient for them to have me where the tourists are,” she says.
In April 2016, Yolanda and several other self-employed workers organized a protest in front of the Communist Party offices in Las Tunas, denouncing the authorities’ decision to remove business stands from a major boulevard and from the main plaza. After the protest, Yolanda was visited by an undercover state inspector, who reported her to the police.
“They took me by force and shoves to the Police Station,” says Yolanda. “They put me in a cell with two men and they didn’t give me anything to eat, not even water.” She was released during the night, but seven months later, she was charged with the crimes of “incitement to commit a crime,” and “contempt.”
In a rigged trial that did not allow her to present a defense, Yolanda was sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison for “inciting crime” and “contempt.” Her prison time was replaced with “limitation of liberty” – a house arrest order requiring her to check in at the Tribunal periodically. However, she refused to comply. She appealed the sentence, but the motion was swiftly rejected.
Despite being subjected to a house arrest order and unable to protest publically, Yolanda found a way to continue calling for human rights. In March 2018, she hung flyers in her windows reading “Down with the Castro brothers,” “Up with UNPACU” and “Long live human rights.” She soon began to receive death threats. One of her neighbors even broke into her house to tear down the flyers. The same night, the police detained her and brought her to La Veguita women’s prison. Her “limitation of liberty” was removed and she was sentenced to 14 months in prison.
According to Yolanda, “there is nothing more cruel and devastating than prisons in Cuba.” She describes her experience:
“They confiscated my eyeglasses, even though I’m dependent on them. I wasn’t allowed to have any reading or writing materials. I was kept in a cell apart from the rest of the inmates. When it rained, there would be just as much water coming through the ceiling of my cell as there was outside. The toilet was just a hole in the floor; before long I began to have digestion and bowel problems. The bed was just a hard platform with blankets. There were all kinds of pests: frogs, cockroaches, spiders, they were all over you when you tried to sleep. I thought I would go insane in there. There was very little medical attention for inmates and no medicines. The food was insufficient and unhealthy, and the water was unsafe. There was sewage all around, the whole place was overcrowded, and the heat and mosquitos were awful.”
After serving her sentence, Yolanda finally left the prison in May 2019.
In August 2019, Yolanda and her son, Cristian Pérez Carmenate, set out for two different protests. Both events were attacked by state forces. Security forces arrested Yolanda violently, leaving her with serious muscle pains. Cristian was arrested with such force that his right arm, where he has a tattoo that says “UNPACU,” was broken. Both Yolanda and Cristian were detained; Cristian was denied medical attention for ten days in detention. A month later, complications from this delay forced him to be transferred to a hospital and undergo extensive surgery, where rods were inserted into his arm.
“While Cristian was in the prison he could barely even walk, he had to use crutches to get around, and when he was finally given conditional release (in January 2020), they brought him out in a wheelchair. Today, he can’t even get out of bed,” says Yolanda, who is now the only source of support for her 42-year-old son.
With Cuba in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, Yolanda and Cristian are confined to their house, limiting the medical attention that Cristian can receive. Cristian does not have a primary care provider and has not been able to obtain the operation he needs to remove the rods in his arm. He is suffering severe swelling and pain.
Furthermore, Yolanda recently received notice of another fine, proving that Cuban authorities continue to pursue her. She is clear, however, that she will continue her efforts to denounce the systematic abuses that she and countless other Cubans have suffered.