Sonia Garro (Rancho Boyeros, Havana, 1975), finds it surprisingly easy to find her way in Prague, although she has never travelled abroad before. She believes it’s owing to her ability to quickly remember important landmarks. In Cuba, she’s been often detained by the Police, which first threatened her for a few hours and then took her to some godforsaken place in the suburbs of Havana. “I had to learn to remember the way somehow to be able to get back,” she says.
Sonia had frequently fallen victim to this practice of State Security agents, commonly used to punish Cuban opposition members, before she was arrested on March 12, 2012. “On that morning we organized a protest in the town of Marianao, where I live. I hanged posters all over the neighbourhood and led a group of protesters, demanding respect for human rights. Rapid Response Brigades then came and surrounded my house, but the locals prevented them from entering and arresting me. At one o’clock in the afternoon, they were all gone and everything was quiet, but at three they burst in again, armed with shotguns. I got shot in the leg and I fainted.”
Sonia was accused of the crime of assault and taken to Manto Negro, female prison in the west of Cuba. She spent there nearly three years, or, to be precise, “2 years, 9 months and 20 days,” as the woman proudly and calmly repeats to all those who ask her about her stay in prison, giving an impression that she cut a notch on the gun for every day she spent behind bars. “On December 9, 2014, I was released and the prosecutor made me sign a document which stated that I hadn’t committed any crime,” says Sonia, adding that “it was the same prosecutor who demanded a 10 year sentence for me.”
Sonia says that in 2006, shortly after she had joined the Ladies in White, she was fired from work. She worked as a laboratory technician. “From that moment on, until the day of my arrest, I was under constant pressure exerted by State Security,” narrates Sonia. Then she explains how the government mechanisms work when trying to prevent Cubans flirting with the opposition from carrying on with their activities: “In the beginning, they just give you a warning. They reach out to you through people you know, who come to you and give you a friendly advice to stop the ‘counter-revolutionary’ activities. What follows are nasty threats from strangers and finally, you get the sack.” If it’s still not enough and the dissident refuses to come to reason, it’s time to focus on their closest family members and have them suffer the consequences. “What hurts me most is that my daughter couldn’t get a proper education just for being my daughter. I can withstand things like physical abuse, being in prison, anything else… but not the fact that they have deprived my daughter of her future.”
Sonia’s daughter, Elaine, is 19 now, but looks much younger. She was born prematurely, at six months and a few days, and almost died. Sonia suffered so much that she decided not to have more children and dedicates herself fully to caring for Elaine. Yet, her daughter’s dependency on her grew significantly when she was expelled from school and became stronger during Sonia’s lengthy imprisonment. After Sonia’s liberation, the two women are almost inseparable.
“Cuban prisoners are not treated like people, but like dogs,” continues Sonia, who spent most of her stay behind bars in solitary confinement, to avoid the risk that she could provoke a riot with other inmates. Like other imprisoned dissidents, she claims she has seen gestures of sympathy from ordinary prisoners, who tend to admire political prisoners and relate to them up to the point of protecting them. Sometimes they even ask them for advice how to act in certain situations. Sonia also remembers the support provided to her by one of the doctors: “He truly cared about us and it hurt him when he saw that they never provided us with the treatment he had prescribed. You could see that he really wanted to do many things that weren’t within his power…”
Due to poor hygienic conditions and lack of medical treatment, Sonia’s wounded leg (the result of the shot that hit her during her detention) couldn’t heal well and as a result, she developed diabetes and anaemia. She didn’t receive any medicine even when she was taken to hospital in April 2013, during the famous opening of Cuban jails to the international press. “When I got back to my cell again, I learned from the inmates that they transferred me to the hospital only because they wanted to prevent the journalists from seeing me there,” she says.
Sonia thinks she knows why it was her who was sent to jail and not another of her fellow activists. She remembers how she once did something that really annoyed State Security – in 2011, she staged a protest with 6 other women. They marched to the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform at the end of the Malecon, a place where public demonstrations in support for the government are usually held, and Sonia raised a banner in defence of human rights in one of the poles. “State Security then thought I was the leader of the group of protesters and from that moment on, the persecution got more intense. It was after that incident when they started to threaten me that my daughter would not be able to continue studying and that I would be prosecuted. They kept their word, indeed,” she adds. Certainly, it didn’t help her that she kept organizing seminars, mostly dedicated to the issue of racial discrimination in Cuba, which were very popular among her neighbours.
Back home from prison now, Sonia tries to pick up her life where she had left it off. She wants to continue organizing conferences and protests, even if there have been some rapid changes in her country recently. The question is, in which direction is the country heading now. Claudio Fuentes, Cuban photographer, who has spent the last few months trying to portray the Ladies in White in their public activities as well as in their privacy, points out that the hardest thing in the lives of these women is not the abuse by State Security, but the every-day struggle to make a living. Some of them live in conditions very close to poverty and Sonia’s case is not different. She and her daughter are only able to survive by selling home-made sweets. “I think I’ll keep earning the bread this way, because I don’t want to accept money from Miami,” says Sonia. “Organizations in Miami that give you money want you to say and do what they want, and I want to do and say what I think and what I believe in. It’s easy for them to tell people what to do, from a comfortable position like theirs,” she adds.
Sonia is more than sure that she will continue as a member of the Ladies in White movement and she also wants to resume her activist efforts within the island: “Of course I will still be in trouble – anyone who acts against the Cuban government gets into trouble,” she says. Yet, she refuses to go to exile and says that she will not stop fighting until there is not a single political prisoner in Cuban prisons and until human rights are respected again. And what if this becomes real one day? “Well, in this case I will get back to my job as a lab technician, that’s a career I studied for.” One last thing, is she not scared? “Of course I am,” she admits. “If anyone in Cuba tells you that they are not scared, they lie.”