Have you heard them speak? Have you seen them lead? Maybe not. Yet, even in a country where political freedoms are constrained, Cuban women manage to do both. Here are a few of their stories.
Take the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) — female activists whose spouses were jailed for opposing the country’s dictatorship. They face constant harassment for peacefully demanding the freedom for Cuba’s political prisoners. Suffering physical harm and psychological abuse, the Damas are not discouraged. They persevere, and their voices carry beyond the island. The work of their leader, Berta de los Ángeles Soler Acosta, has reached international human rights forums, where she has presented accounts of human rights violations in Cuba. Every Sunday, Soler marches with her companions to advocate for justice and freedom for Cuba’s political prisoners. The price for being so outspoken is high – jail time and solitary confinement – but the Damas persist.
Democracy activist Rosa Maria Payá learned persistence from her father. She is the daughter of late Oswaldo Payá, a renowned democracy advocate who died under suspicious circumstances in a car accident on a country road. She created and leads Cuba Decide (Cuba Decides), a project calling for a plebiscite to allow free and fair elections. Promoting a democratic transition has not been easy for Payá. In February, she hosted an event in Cuba to honor Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) and other luminaries for their defense of democratic values. None of her invitees received entry visas from the Cuban government. Payá conducted her event anyway, denouncing the government’s bans on civil liberties and political rights.
And then there is Laritza Diversent—a lawyer who helps fellow Cubans defend themselves under the Cuban legal system. Her non-profit organization, Cubalex, provides advice and represents Cubans citizens pro bono in three provinces. Even though Diversent bases her legal arguments on Cuban and international law, the government has blacklisted her. Threats, raids, and confiscations of equipment and documents are a frequent occurrence. Diversent’s response is to persist and keep improving. She learned how to use international mechanisms to defend human rights in multilateral institutions like the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights. She recently participated in said commission, bringing cases of human rights violations to the international stage.
In his 1982 Westminster address, Ronald Reagan said democracy is not a fragile flower. The Damas, Rosa Maria Payá, and Laritza Diversent are far from fragile. These are only a few of the Cuban women who stand strong for democracy in the face of repression. They speak, they lead, and the world should hear them.