Protest in white in Cuba – the Damas de Blanco – a conversation with Blanca Reyes

IMG_0013FNF: What are the Damas de Blanco and what do they fight for?

Blanca: During the Black Spring in 2003, the Cuban government arrested and summarily tried and sentenced 75 human rights defenders, journalists and librarians for alleged “acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state”. One of the human rights activists arrested was my husband Raúl Rivero.

After the arrest, the government retained them in trial detention in a prison close to la Havana. There, we, their wives, daughters and sisters met and started to give each other moral and financial support.

The Damas de Blanco – Ladies in White – were formed two weeks after the arrests by a small group of women related to the prisoners, mostly their wives. I was present the first day we went to the Santa Rita church for mass, dressed in white in sign for our pacific opposition to the massive arrests. Every Sunday, more women joined the protest and the movement grew bigger. After a few weeks of attending mass in Santa Rita, Laura Pollán, proposed to go out to the nearby park and to organize a silent non-violent protest march.

However, as we gained visibility, the Cuban regime also started repressing our movement. At first, the reaction of the Cuban government was very harsh. The Damas were insulted, threatened and beaten while demonstrating pacifically. However, luckily, international support offered us some safety. In 2005, the Damas received the Sakharov Price of Freedom of Thought. I went to Brussels to receive the price as I was already living in exile in Madrid and the leaders of the movement in Cuba were not allowed to leave the country.

The impact of our movement and international pressure on the Cuban government finally incited them to release the prisoners. The regime was hoping that we would drop our protest if they release our husbands, but they were mistaken. The release of most of the human rights activists in 2004-2005 did not stop us of continuing to voice our claims of human rights and fundamental liberties.

Although only 12 out of the 75 human rights defenders that were jailed during the black spring in 2003 remained in Cuba after their release, the movement lives on. Currently, over 250 Damas de Blanco fight for a more democratic and free Cuba all over the country.

FNF: Which was your personal motivation when founding the Damas de Blanco together with the other wives of prisoners?Damas de Blanco

Blanca: Back in 2003 I was a house wife; actually, most of the Damas were. Although, being the wife of Raúl, I met many activists and intellectuals in our home, but I personally was not an activist. Things changed radically when Raúl and the other 74 human rights defenders were arrested back in 2003. I met the other wives and we started to organize ourselves, firstly to give each other support. In a second stage, we wanted to do more and started to attend mass in Santa Rita. Luckily, we had Laura Pollán, a natural leader, who proposed that we should demonstrate publicly. From the beginning it was clear to me and the other Damas that our protest had to be pacific.

After the government released Raúl in 2004, after 20 month in prison, we decided to leave the island. It was also the agreement Castro’s government had found with the US and Spain, that if they would release the prisoners, they would receive asylum in one of these countries, leave Cuba and stop opposing the regime.

Although living in exile, I wanted to continue to fight for a more democratic Cuba and it was important to continue raising awareness about the situation in Cuba and the fight of the Damas de Blanco on the international stage. Therefore, I started to work with different civil society organisations in the US and Europe. We raise awareness on the international stage and give the Damas and other opposition movements all the support we can from the outside. We also created the Diario the Cuba to give an alternative perspective to the official government position. I went to receive the Sakharov Price on behalf of the Damas, as the travel ban was still in place. But, I have never been able to go back to Cuba.

The most striking for me in become an activist myself, was that once you have passed the barrier created by your own fear, you are not scared anymore and nothing can stop you. As my husband once put it talking about when he started to be an activist: “I was afraid of my own fear. I was afraid of not being able to stand it. Everything is programmed to undo you as a human being.”

IMG_0061FNF: Recently, there have been changes in Cuba such as the possibility to receive a license to have a small business or to sell your house and they have lifted the travel ban. What is your interpretation of these changes?

Blanca: The Damas know that authoritarian regimes have no vocation to change. Our experience, direct contact with reality and a decade under harassment and repression, makes us believe that the reforms and changes are clumsy attempts of the regime to maintain itself in power. For those who work every day to free political prisoners and transform the society they live in, some of the measures taken in recent times by the Cuban government are pure survival maneuvers. Their goal is to improve the international image of the regime. The island is burdened by the stagnation of an economy that does not depend on effectiveness or performance and the regime has lost its last ally with the death of Hugo Chavez.

The travel permits given to some opposition leaders, such as our spokesperson Berta Soler, are part of this programme to make up the reality in the island. Throughout the island, beatings, insults, assaults on houses and temporary arrests continue to characterize the life of human rights activists. Only during the month of May, about 400 such cases have been registered.

The regime is looking for financial support and political backing by the international community, but their efforts to persecute the Damas de Blanco and other pro-democracy activists carry on. Currently, the Dama de Blanco Sonia Garro is being held prisoner in El Guatao, near Havana. She was arrested in March 2012 and has since been retained in jail without trial.

FNF: What should be the role of the EU in relation to the Cuban government?

Blanca: Between 2003 and 2008 Cuba cut the relations with the EU and its member states. Therefore, I understand that the EU is trying to maintain an open channel for dialogue and diplomatic relations. However, many opposition movements, including the Damas de Blanco, have asked the EU to maintain the common position towards Cuba. They fear that by negotiating and concluding a bilateral agreement EU-Cuba, the regime could find some legitimacy or at least sell the agreement as the international recognition of their policies.

In my view, the EU should stay strong and put pressure on the regime for more and faster changes in democratic freedom and fundamental rights. This is crucial, especially considering that the EU is elaborating a mandate for negotiations of a bilateral agreement EU-Cuba. Within the negotiations the EU should stay strong on issues of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The EU should push for concrete steps, even if they remain small steps, such as the permanent lift of the travel ban for all Cubans, the unrestricted access to internet, the liberation of political prisoners, allow free press, the ratification of the UN Convenant on Civil and Political Rights, etc.

FNF: What are the future prospects for Cuba?Por otra Cuba

Blanca: The authoritarian regime in Cuba is asphyxiated by economic problems, growing opposition and the lack of international support. There are no new leaders or a new generation within the communist party who will be able to claim power after the death of the Castro brothers. People who voiced opposition to the political agenda of the Castro brothers within the party have been systematically cornered by the ruling elite.

In my view, the regime will not be able to maintain itself in place for much longer and it is not very likely that they will be able to manage a progressive reform process. That is why I call for the EU and all other international actors to remain strong in their position towards Cuba.

The Damas de Blanco in any case will keep up their work for a freer and more democratic Cuba. To this aim, we have also started to coordinate with other opposition movements and human rights defenders to have a common platform. We are currently setting up an advisory committee together with platforms such as “por otra Cuba”, bloggers such as Yoani Sánchez and human rights defenders such as Guillermo Fariñas. The committee aims at providing regular reports on the situation of human rights in Cuba aimed at informing the Cuban population and international actors.

Blanca Reyes was interviewed by Julie Cantalou, European Affairs Manager, while she visited Brussels on invitation of FNF. Besides talking to representatives of the European institutions she shared her ideas and experiences with a broader public in the framework FNF-conference series “Freedom thinkers – freedom fighters”.