Washington D.C., November 24, 2021.– On November 18th, the Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality) released a report entitled “Voices in Resistance: Women Political Prisoners in Cuba.” The report documents the experience of women who are or have been political prisoners in Cuba and the impact their criminal sentences and other acts of oppression have had on their lives. Furthermore, the report contains recommendations to the Cuban State as well as the international community oriented towards changing the situation of persecution and criminalization which women activists and human rights defenders face on the Island.
The event to launch the report was attended by the Rapporteur for Cuba from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), Commissioner Stuardo Ralón, as well as women ex-political prisoners, who suggested policies and shared their experiences from different perspectives. Caitlin Kelly, Latin America Legal Program Officer at Race and Equality and author of the report, presented the report’s main findings; and Christina Fetterhoff, Director of Programs at Race and Equality, gave a welcome statement in which she highlighted the relevance of this event in the context of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which is commemorated every 25th of November.
“Women human rights defenders in Cuba suffer structural violence every day in a very particular way. They have to endure the dual burden of paid and unpaid work, which is common for women in any part of the world, but Cuban women activists are also subjected to harassment, threats, acts of repudiation, interrogations, and arbitrary detentions, among others, which many times include physical as well as emotional violence. The consequences of this violence are felt by the activists’ families and their communities. And in the cases in which women become political prisoners, the impact of the structural violence becomes much worse,” she said.
Caitlin Kelly, Latin American Legal Program Officer at Race and Equality, explained that apart from the “dual burden” which the Cuban women carry within the context of political control and shortage of food and medicine, the key factors that inspired this report are that Cuba does not have a law to protect women from gender-based violence and the lack of information on women political prisoners in the international community.
The report includes the cases of 12 women activists who were convicted for different crimes after expressing opinions in opposition to the government. The majority of them spent six months or more in a penal institution in Cuba, while others served their sentences under house arrest. The information was collected through interviews which were done directly with the women or with the families of those imprisoned.
“The interviews with the political prisoners confirm that the prisons in Cuba are inhumane and do not provide the basic provisions needed to survive. The women were in dirty cells, filled with rats and insects and, in some cases, even human waste. They were left hungry and isolated from their families and from other prisoners. Some suffered violence from inmates or guards. None received adequate medical treatment, which resulted in serious illness,” the report said.
The Lady in White (Dama de Blanco) and former political prisoner, Jacqueline Heredia, is one of the protagonists of the report. She was detained in April 2016 and, after spending more than a year in prison (May 2017), was sentenced to three years in prison for the crimes of “contempt” and “assault of an authority.” In August 2017 they granted her leave for serious health complications. Today, the activist faces the risk of returning to prison, as both she and her husband, Carlos Alberto Álvarez, are being accused of the crime of “assault of an authority”.
Jacqueline’s husband has been detained for six months in Prison 1580, in San Miguel del Padrón, La Habana. “They detained him for [the non-payment of] a few arbitrary fines that they gave us both, and now they accuse us of assault, and are asking for four years in prison for him and three for me. They say that we committed this assault in 2019, on the 8th of September, the day of the Sunflower March, which we participated in peacefully. He is awaiting trial in prison, and I at home,” she said through a video shared at the event.
Yamilka Abascal, who is a member of the Cuban Youth Roundtable (Mesa de Diálogo de la Juventud Cubana) and other organizations that promote human rights and democracy on the Island, was sentenced in 2017 to two years of house arrest. Yamilka was accused of “contempt” when she and her husband – the activist José Rolando Casares – were on their way to Havana to participate in an international press conference to present a civil campaign of the Roundtable.
Yamilka was eight months pregnant when she was convicted. She participated in the event over the phone and explained how the constant harassment by police she experienced during her house arrest has psychologically affected her and her children. Although she has already served her sentence, the young woman is still followed and harassed by Cuban authorities and supporters of the government.
Lisandra Rivera is part of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) and because of her activism has been harassed, threatened, and physically attacked in recent years. In June 2014, she lost her four-month pregnancy due to a beating by State Security agents and the National Revolutionary Police. “In 2016, I was detained because I came out in defense of some self-employed people who were being attacked and at the end of 2016 I was tried and taken to prison for the crime of assault”, she said in a video which was shared at the event.
Rivera was sentenced to two years in prison. She spent the first 11 months in the Santiago de Cuba prison during which time she was not allowed visitors and was denied the right to make phone calls. Later she was transferred to the Kilo 5 Prison in Camagüey, where on five occasions she was placed in solitary confinement, once for a period of three months and ten days. Furthermore, Lisandra suffered due to the terrible hygiene and food conditions of the prison.
The work of the IACHR
In his speech, the IACHR Rapporteur for Cuba stressed that civil society in Cuba reports “a systematic pattern to persecute peaceful demonstrators, political opponents, and activists,” which has worsened as a result of the July 11 protests and the demonstration announced by independent civil society for November 15th. The November 15th protest could not be carried out due to the strong repression of the government. “And this continues through harassment, arbitrary detentions and trials that do not observe the minimum guarantees of the legal process,” he said.
Commissioner Ralón, in the name of the IACHR, called upon the international community to demand that the State immediately end the persecution and arrests of dissenting or opposition voices and release those imprisoned. He also emphasized that the Commission is very motivated to continue the work of monitoring “because there is full conviction that in order for full respect for human rights to exist, the principal liberties for which these voices clamor must be guaranteed.”
At Race and Equality, we continue to follow the human rights situation in Cuba, including the persecution and criminalization which women activists and human rights defenders confront. With this report we hope to contribute to change this reality, demanding that the Cuban State abides by its international human rights obligations and sharing with civil society and the international community some of the voices in resistance.