Fifty-five-year-old Nieves Matamoros’ first encounters with the police took place at the stall in Havana where she and her son sold produce. Over time, she grew accustomed to receiving arbitrary and unfair fines as she sought to make a living, but the situation worsened when she joined the Damas de Blanco in 2014. “It was then that they really began to harass and pressure my family and I,” she recalls.
Dressed all in white, Nieves and the Damas braved arrest and violence to call for the release of Cuba’s political prisoners. On several occasions, the women were arrested and held for 24 to 48 hours. Nieves knew that she was at risk of being charged and sentenced, but she persevered and continued to attend the protests.
The fines that she and her son, today 35, received at the produce stand and the additional fines for public disruption that she received at the Sunday protests piled up. In April 2018, Nieves owed 18,000 pesos while her son owed 13,000. “These were fines that I had no ability to pay,” Nieves says. She went to the authorities to ask for a deferral or an agreement to pay in installments, but the official who she met refused, telling her she had to pay the full amount at once.
Nieves received a citation requiring her to report to court on April 9, 2018. State Security forces, however, detained her a day early, as she was marching with the Damas de Blanco. Nieves was thrown to the ground, struck, and brought to a police station.
The next day, Nieves was brought to trial along with her son. One of the witnesses against her was the same official who had refused her request for a deferral of her fines. The official, however, testified that she had never come to the office to request one. In an unfair trial, Nieves and her son were both sentenced to 18 months in prison for failing to pay their fines. Their story highlights a common strategy used by the Cuban authorities: finding pretexts to impose fines against activists, then arresting them for failing to pay these fines. At least six of Cuba’s current political prisoners were imprisoned using this strategy.
“I told the henchmen: you got what you wanted, but I will continue to oppose you from inside.” These were Nieves’ last words in the courtroom as she was sentenced.
Life in prison
Nieves spent two months at El Guatao women’s prison, including a week in an isolation cell without contact from visitors or other inmates. She was then sent to La Bellote women’s prison in the province of Matanzas, where she spent eleven months.
Nieves explains that conditions were “horrible” in both prisons. In La Bellote, she was denied communication with her family on several occasions, while her loved ones were often refused entry without cause when they attempted to visit her. Prison doctors discovered a cyst on her kidney. Remembering the violence of her arrest and the many blows that she had suffered throughout her time in prison, Nieves believes that her incarceration caused her health issues.
“My family suffered so much. It hurt my husband a great deal, and my daughter who could never come to the prison,” Nieves remembers.
Finally, after another stint in El Guatao, Nieves was released on October 5, 2019.
Even after her release, Nieves’ health continues to plague her. In late 2019, she underwent an operation for two fibroids. “I believe it was the dirty water, the poor nutrition…they kept getting worse until they had to operate,” says Nieves.
Today, Nieves lives with her husband, her son (who has also been freed), and her three grandchildren, all of whom are younger than 12.
Although Cuban authorities have not returned to threaten her, she still suffers the consequences of her detention. Her health remains poor as she slowly recovers from surgery, and she is not yet able to re-open her produce stand or return to activism with the Damas.
She hopes, when her health improves, to return to the life she once had.
 Cuba’s official minimum wage is 400 pesos per month