FoRB on the Frontlines: Fighting for freedom as long as it’s necessary

The Ladies in White are a Cuban peaceful protest movement comprising the wives and other female relatives of jailed dissidents. Last year CSW interviewed their leader, Berta Soler, about her experiences, and the challenges facing Cuba:

“My activism really got started in 2003 when the government took [imprisoned] 75 men and one woman just because they defended the Declaration of Human Rights.

I and the other Ladies in White are women who are prepared, very well prepared, and aware that we are in a struggle for the freedom of political prisoners and for respect for human rights in my country. And we, the Ladies in White and I, are very conscious that in my country we need freedom and rights, especially for the men and women who are in prison just for demanding this and promoting and defending the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

With respect to religious freedom, we have been meeting at Catholic churches for Mass for over 15 years now, first to be near Christ and to ask Him that He intercede and give us strength so that our men and women in prison would be free and that the heart of the government would listen. We first participate in Mass and before we go out we pray to Christ to intercede for our loved ones for the health of our men who are in prison, for the sicknesses they suffer in prison, but we also pray for the hearts of our Cuban government because we are all Cubans and we want the right to be free women and men but also an end to the violence.

We go out after Mass, inside the church we don’t mix the political part with the Christian part, when we go out we hold a protest march, peacefully and in silence with gladiola flowers in our hands…”

What tendencies have you seen the government use to stop your activism and to stop your work on religious freedom?

“Really it’s gotten worse. Over the past few years, since Obama came in March 2016, the tendency of the government has been to take away religious freedom. Why have they taken away religious freedom? Here in Havana we have chosen to pray at the Church of Santa Rita, patron saint of impossible causes. But it’s not just those who attend this church who are affected. Over the past two years, across the island, the Cuban regime won’t allow a single woman dressed in white, a member of the Ladies in White, to arrive and participate at Mass, and not just in Mass but any church activity during the week.

The first Mass of the year, the Mass of Peace, has been important ever since we founded the Ladies in White – we’ve always gone to that Mass but over the past two years the Cuban regime has not even permitted us to attend the first Mass of the year. Truthfully religious freedom for us is non-existent.

The Cuban regime arrests us, even at the doors of the cathedral in Havana. There are even cases of women who’ve gotten inside of the church and have been dragged out. Unfortunately we also have some priests who work with the regime, specifically in Cienfuegos, to remove the women. They say if you come dressed in white you can’t come inside the church. They have an agreement with state security and they are violating our religious freedom. Truthfully there are many women who want to be near Christ because of their faith and the Cuban regime won’t permit it.”

The Cuban government is hostile to all rights that any Cuban citizen wants to exercise

Why do you think the government is so hostile to religious freedom?

“First it’s not just hostile to religious freedom, the Cuban government is hostile to all rights that any Cuban citizen wants to exercise. In my opinion religious freedom doesn’t hurt anyone, here we see that there used to be Catholic schools, but when Fidel Castro took power they took away all those Catholic schools. Before Pope John Paul II visited in 1998, if you wanted to baptize your child you had to do it in secret, but thanks to the visit of the Holy Father we could go back to church, we could draw near to Christ, and we could take our children and didn’t have to hide them. Despite this the Cuban regime still won’t, for example, give any space on the radio – not to us but to the priests, to the church leaders … in schools there is no religious education, the Cuban regime wants to control everything – this is with all rights, not just religious rights.”

What has your experience of arrests been?

“One is beaten with a level of brutality, there are normally at least five uniformed female and sometimes male police, they knock you to the ground, they pull your hair, they kick your feet out from under you, they handcuff you with very tight restraints. It’s painful, sometimes they asphyxiate you by putting their foot on your neck, they push you and make you run as if you were a horse, they hit you with the metal handcuffs – but even after all this they put you in a dungeon in awful conditions, there’s no privacy, you are put alongside common criminals, drunks, drug addicts, people that are dangerous. There’s no bathroom – overflowing toilets with a horrible smell, mattresses that are full of insects…”

What role does your family play in your activism?

I had to send my two sons, the only sons I have, out of the country along with my only granddaughter, two and a half years ago, because the Cuban regime blocked my son who was in his third year of a micro-biology degree at the University of Havana and they ended up kicking him out of school, he was attacked by young people with weapons. I had to get him out of the country. My family support me, thanks to God, although they aren’t all with me in the struggle. I thank God for my husband, an ex-prisoner, one of the 75, he is in the struggle with me. I don’t have any problems with my family even though they are threatened by state security. However, other members of the Ladies in White have had problems with their families. The government tries to divide families, they try to separate them, encourage them to kick them out of their homes, they imprison their children, they kick them out of school or out of their place of work, in order to pressure the Ladies in White to leave their activism, to leave the movement. This happens day after day and is how the regime targets the Ladies in White.

What is the biggest challenge for your group in the future?

“The biggest challenge we are facing is that the government is now targeting our families. We have members who have elderly mothers, the government goes and harasses and threatens them, tries to make them afraid so that we will leave our struggle. The challenge is to continue in the struggle, even if they imprison us, even if we suffer the loss of a member of our family or a loved ones who are so important to us as women, our mothers or our children.

We are going to continue until Cuba is free, until there is freedom and they respect the rights of the citizens. We want rule of law so we are going to continue as long as it’s necessary. Cuba needs freedom and it depends on us – our challenge is to continue until we see change in our country. “

What changes do you want to see in terms of religious freedom?

“It’s very important that here in Cuba they respect religious freedom and all other fundamental rights – for example in the schools that there should be religious freedom and that we might even have Catholic schools like there used to exist in Cuba. But it’s also very important that the priests inside of Cuba continue and respect the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, that they don’t allow themselves to be co-opted, that they don’t allow themselves to be intimidated by the Castro totalitarian regime. The Catholic Church is an institution that has lasted for many centuries it shouldn’t subject itself to anyone – here there are people who sometimes are afraid because the Cuban regime is so totalitarian, such a dictatorship that sometimes it even intimidates priests who want to speak, who want to act – to the point in some cases that they can’t fulfil their duties in line with the social doctrine of the Catholic Church.”

Final thoughts:

“Spreading the word of what is happening in Cuba is very important. It’s important that people hear and know and understand but what we need is to be near to Christ. There is no regime, there is no person, because this grace comes from God, no one, no man can take that away from nor give to us this freedom that we want to be near to Christ. Anyone who receives the grace of God, anyone who wants to be near to Christ should have that opportunity. It’s important that we speak out so that this regime does not continue to block us from being in Mass, from being at the side of Christ. We’ve asked for support from the [Catholic Church] hierarchy, from the nuncio, but we haven’t really had an answer. What we want is to be able to be in Mass if we want to be there without the Cuban regime stopping us.”

Click here to read CSW’s latest report on Cuba (also available in Spanish and Portuguese).