“It is hard to fight your whole life”: An interview with María Antonieta Colunga Olivera

María Antonieta Colunga Olivera is a journalist, the mother of Caleb and the wife of Yoel Suárez, also a journalist and FoRB activist whom she met when she worked as an editor and journalist for the Cuban magazine El Caimán Barbudo. 

Now she works as a communicator in the national office of Cáritas Cuba, a humanitarian aid institution of the Catholic Church. Her husband has written extensively on human rights and freedom of religion or belief, and as a result of his work, he has been subjected to regular harassment by the Cuban authorities. 

CSW spoke with María Antonieta to hear her testimony and highlight her experience.

“The longest hours of my life”

María Antonieta’s husband Yoel was summoned to the Siboney Police Station in Havana for the first time on 5 February 2020. There, he was interrogated for three hours by a state security agent, and informed he’d been subjected to an indefinite travel ban.

“I was the first to hear, the first time that they arrested him. He managed to send me a WhatsApp message from the back of the police car, separated from his captors by a piece of glass, where he was barely able to type: warning- they’re taking me in! As a couple, as confidants, and also as colleagues, we had foreseen this moment. We had seen other colleagues who had done the same as him – reporting Cuba’s realities without compromising with the powers that be – fall like dominos, and we knew our turn would probably come. On my WhatsApp I had a list of contacts, friends in and outside of Cuba who could publicise the arrest and exert some pressure so that he would be released. I started to send SOS messages. 

He was not gone for days; it was five hours. But, for me, they were some of the longest hours of my life. We were miles away: I was in Camagüey with our young son visiting my family, and he was in Guantánamo, just trying to do journalism. 

I only remember asking my mother to watch Caleb while I went to the balcony to send messages and keep an eye on my phone. I spoke with my mother-in-law, who was also playing the waiting game in Havana, a few times. At one point, Yoe called us from a payphone to tell us they had let him go, he was coming back to Camagüey, and that they had taken his mobile. I was still on edge, up until the early hours of the morning when he arrived at my mother’s house and we were able to embrace.”

María Antonieta and her husband Yoel

CSW: Did it cross your mind that he wouldn’t come back?

“I did think it could be 72 hours until they let him go, because they do that with a lot of activists and members of the political opposition: they hold them for three days, interrogate them and then, unable to charge them with anything, they let them go. I was prepared for this as the worst-case scenario.”

CSW: What did you think might happen to you and your son?

“Other than suffering the injustice of being separated from a loved one, the reprisals and consequences for families of political prisoners in Cuba are generally indirect. A family seeing a relative arrested, imprisoned, defamed or ostracised inevitably suffers, above all when they know their relative has committed no crime other than defending their beliefs or pursuing their profession according to their conscience, without hurting anyone. 

There are families (thank God we are not one) that have to live through the hounding of a loved one, with a patrol car parked outside their house on certain days (for example, when we celebrate World Human Rights Day, or when a public protest is announced) and there is an agent, supposedly a guardian of public order, who stops them from going outside even without a judicial order or giving any reason. They say “well they don’t touch you” but we all know it is worse watching them touch a loved one than suffering that pain yourself. 

After they detained Yoe the first time, I knew (or rather, I confirmed) that we could no longer talk about anything and everything on our mobiles or the landline, because obviously the lines were ‘pinchado’ [tapped], as we say in Cuba. You watch as your own privacy is under attack.

Then things begin to happen: they come to your house regularly to summon your husband to the local police station and every time you hear someone outside the house call out your name, you don’t assume it is a surprise visit from a friend.  Your heart simply drops and you say: “here they are, again.”

It is not what you think might happen to you, but what actually happens that affects you on an emotional level, a psychological level and at the social level. You begin to doubt the neighbours on your block; when an old acquaintance sends you a text, you do not know if they are saying hello or writing to you with sincerity or if they are “working” for those people. You go see friends and you feel uncomfortable when a camera is aimed in your direction. At the end of day all of it is in your head, it is probably just paranoia, and nothing more, but your fears consume you; it is a cruel and sad consequence, and it is the biggest achievement of those who persecute you. 

Praise God, I am a person with unlimited faith in the betterment of humanity, and I am dreamer, sometimes to the point of recklessness. I believe that God takes care of us and I rest in Him. And I continue loving all my friends and greeting everyone in my neighbourhood with affection.”

CSW: What did you say to him when they freed him and he arrived home?

“I do not remember saying anything in particular. I am usually very practical about these sorts of things, maybe I would have said: “call your mum”, because my mother-in-law was in Havana and we weren’t going to see her until we had returned from the family visit in Camagüey. Yes, I remember we held each other for a long time. I did not have to say very much to him, we know, and I think that being calm and uncomplaining has always been the best welcome I can offer in these situations.”

“Do not be scared, you have not done anything wrong”

After his first arrest, Mr Suárez continued to carry out his work, despite facing repeated police summons, and witnessing threats and harassment against his family members.

“After the first arrest, some of his relatives urged caution, even colleagues, worried about his security, insisting that he use pseudonyms in his publications. When my husband asked me what I thought, I responded: “if you do these things, they will know that their schemes have gotten to you. Do not be scared, you have not done anything wrong, you are a man of honour, above reproach, and God is with you. Keep doing your job, committed to truth, as you have done up to today, and I will be at your side.”

After that first arrest, there was a series of police summons (six of them I think) for interrogations with state security agents. At the time I also made my position known. On 11 February I posted the following on my Facebook page: 

“Caleb woke up with a fever, the water should arrive today (fingers crossed) as well as the mincemeat (properly bought in the neighbourhood TRD [Foreign Currency Store]) I stayed up all night with my mouth watering. Nothing affects the peace of my house, we are together in here, and our love protects us from everything. Dad will continue being ‘SuperDad’, the baby’s hero and mine; and I know that today and tomorrow, just as before, I will have to continue repeating the same thing at eight every evening: “journalist, save your Word document and move the laptop off the table, I’m coming with the plates.” Anyone who thinks that a three-hour exchange of unpleasant words is going to change that, does not know him and does not know me. Thank you to all the friends and brave people who have stood at our side in these days. May God bless them very much.”

The second time they detained him also involved one hour of questioning, and at home we were unaware until he returned. He had gone out to do some errands and his plans were to go to the bank; as there are long lines at the banks, I thought that that was why he was slow to getting back and it was not until he got home that we found out what had happened. It was after two in the afternoon and I was still waiting for him to have lunch together, like we always do. Praise God, this was the last difficult experience we had to deal with.

This second arrest was more difficult for us, because its modus operandi was basically a kidnapping. We denounced it on our social networks and since then we have tried, more than ever, to live in compliance with the laws, because we know that the next step may be to build for a case against him in order to prosecute him as a straightforward lawbreaker.

I have always supported and will continue to support Yoe in his right to pursue his profession without pressure. However, I would be lying if I did not admit that these situations affect our life, and that I do worry. We just try to prevent fear from slowing us down us or defining our lives. I would also be lying if I did not admit that I would prefer to raise my son and experience family life far away from this sad reality ruling my country; and far away from the harsh economic privation that we face as well. We have discussed the possibility of emigrating many times as a family. It is hard to fight your whole life.

He is not the one who must change. I never ask myself this question. It is not a fair question for him. My country must change so that my family does not suffer.”

“Even in the bleakest moments there are things for which to give thanks”

In March 2021, María Antonieta was herself summoned by police to the Immigration Police Station in Nuevo Vedado, where she was interrogated about her husband’s work as well as her own work for Caritas. She described the incident, which lasted around 30 minutes, in a post on her Facebook page:

“They repeated the stated objective of the meeting more than once: that as a wife I could “help” my husband, influence him, advise him to re-evaluate his professional practice and not continue down that path. More than once, I made it perfectly clear to them that I greatly admire Yoe as a professional and that I would in no way interfere with his work, except to support him. 

Aside from the awkwardness of a situation like this, I did not feel bad, nervous or cornered; and I do not say this as a compliment to the security officers’ façade of kindness… maybe I just want to highlight this to calm the friends and family who will read this, and a little also so as not to overlook the serenity and peace that God has instilled in me, because even in the bleakest moments there are things for which to give thanks.”