Español“Welcome to Cuba, I hope you can tell the world what the human-rights situation is here.” This is how Berta Soler, leader of the pro-democracy group Ladies in White, greets us at the entrance of La Merced church in Havana.
Some 20 women stand next to her, ready to begin their weekly march to demand the Cuban regime release all political prisoners.
While the Castros boast of Cuba’s supposed world-class health-care system — even though these claims have been debunked several times — Soler contends the island functions as a giant prison for anyone who dares to speak his mind.
The human-rights activist spoke with the PanAm Post under the scorching Havana sun three days after Pope Francis visited the island. Several fellow Ladies in White and tourists linger around us, as well as others who look like they may be Cuban intelligence agents disguised as civilians.
Are those undercover police officers?
Of course. Some dress up as civilians, but we know who they are. In Cuba, one lives, feels, smells, looks, and speaks with fear.
What would you have told Pope Francis if you had met him during his visit?
I would have thanked him for visiting Cuba and blessing a country that is in dire need of it. I would have told him to advocate for the release of political prisoners on the island and pray for the freedom of Cubans. I would have asked him to condemn the Cuban regime for its police brutality, and demand religious freedom.
What are your thoughts on the young man who read a letter to the pope asking for respect for those who think differently?
That’s correct. He said many things, but to achieve them we need freedom. Otherwise, it’s impossible. The most important thing for the Cuban people is freedom. We know that the Holy Father won’t be Cuba’s liberator. He already knows what Cuba is like, because he knows Latin America.
We were hoping that he would say something to stop human-rights abuses. Over the last 22 consecutive weekends, the Cuban government has arrested us before or after each mass. Cardinal Jaime Ortega and the papal nuncio are aware of it, because we told them. Besides, everything is on social media. The internet shows what is going on.
Many exiled Cubans believe that the Ladies in White have failed to achieve change. What would you tell them?
Perseverance will someday pay off. For those who don’t understand it: the Cuban regime has the power and the strength, but the moral strength and the truth is on our side. In order to achieve something, you need to overcome many obstacles and undergo many negative things. Persistence and perseverance are worth it.
What does your organization have in store for the future?
We created Ladies in White on March 30, 2003, and we remain active. First, we demanded the release of the 75 Black Spring political prisoners, our beloved brothers. Then, we expanded our scope to demand freedom for all political prisoners and respect for human rights.
As long as the Cuban government continues to hold political prisoners, we are going to continue with our struggle. When Cuba eventually reaches democracy, we will focus on the children, and any other social aid that is needed.
Why has the government targeted your group if it is peaceful?
The regime is scared that people are still joining our group. Many of our members are ordinary people who joined us because they sympathize with those of us who have jailed relatives. They want a free, sovereign, and democratic Cuba.
The government knows that if we take to the streets, and they do nothing, many more women will join our cause.