14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 17 January 2017 — Talking with Belkis Cantillo these days can be an impossible mission. With her home raided on several occasions, a daughter about to give her her first granddaughter and the foundation of the new Dignity Movement, the life of this woman is a whirlwind. A resident of Palmarito del Cauto, Santiago de Cuba, the activist is looking forward to better days for Cuba, but she is not ready to fold her arms to wait for them.
With her voice breaking up, Cantillo speaks through the telephone line about her projects and the new organization she has created to support the prisoners who populate the prisons of the Island. She clarifies, to anyone who asks about the origins of the new group, that many of the women who comprise it were part of the Ladies in White. “We were also the group Citizens for Democracy (CXD) and most of us have a great deal of knowledge about this struggle.”
The activist is looking forward to better days for Cuba, but she is not ready to fold her arms to wait for them
For Cantillo, life is a perennial battle. Last Friday at dawn she crossed the mountain to avoid the police siege and shorten the distance that separates her house from the Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Charity of Cobre, patroness of Cuba, whom Cubans affectionately call Cachita. Although she considers herself a devotee of Cachita, this time it was not only her faith that moved her. Some 16 women gathered there to announce the birth of the Dignity Movement.
“The repression was so great that only some of us made it here,” she tells 14ymedio. The fright from what she experienced has not yet passed, but Cantillo is a “battle-hardened” woman. Under her leadership are now grouped around 60 companions of the struggle, three-quarters with a history of activism and experience in opposition from eastern Cuba, the area of the country most tightly controlled by State Security.
“We entered, 14 of us, and later, at ten at night, two more,” Cantillo explains. The surveillance agents also arrived and they threatened them, telling them to withdraw without waiting for Sunday Mass. The women insisted in remaining in a nearby shelter, managed by the church, but in the end they had to return to their homes.
“They didn’t let us eat, nor even drink water. They’d never seen anything like that there, they even called the police to get us out,” she remembered. But the people who were pressuring them didn’t know they had given birth to a new group.
The leader of the Ladies in White, Berta Soler, has words of encouragement for the movement that has just been born. “I see as good every person who fights against the regime,” she emphasizes. “Any movement that is willing to fight the regime, for me, is valid and effective in this fight,” she says. However, she disagrees with what happened on Saturday: “We have to respect the churches, that’s their discipline.”
At the center of her critique is the crime of “pre-criminal dangerousness” – a “crime” for which it is possible to imprison a citizen on the mere suspicion that they may commit a crime in the future.
Cantillo is now focused on the future. Her effort and that of the rest of her colleagues is focused on the common prisoners, a sector that few speak about and whom many avoid representing. “We chose these prisoners to help them and their families with the social and legal attention they need and do not have,” the woman said. At the center of her critique is the crime of “pre-criminal dangerousness” – a “crime” for which it is possible to imprison a citizen on the mere suspicion that they may commit a crime in the future.
In the middle of last year, the United Nations Development Program estimated that Cuba had 510 people in prison for every 100,000 inhabitants, a figure that places it at the head of the region. In 1959 the island had 14 prisons, the figure now exceeds 200, according to estimates by Elizardo Sánchez, president of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN).
For its part, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has denounced that, after El Salvador, Cuba is the country in Central America and the Caribbean with the highest rate of overcrowding in prisons. Between common and political prisoners, the prisons are estimated to house more than 80,000 Cubans, 80% of them black or mixed-race.
The activists are seeking to extend their actions to all provinces but, for the moment, feel comforted to have been able to get this far. “We have succeeded, now we will continue,” says Cantillo, with that direct and brief way of speaking of women accustomed to the rigors of rural life.
“All those who initiated the movement have been threatened by the political police, house by house,” she reports. However, “my family has always been very supportive of me and has had to be strong not to become divided.”
“All those who initiated the movement have been threatened by the political police, house by house”
The leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (Unpacu), her husband, knows Cantillo’s determination well. José Daniel Ferrer looks positively on the formation of the new entity of the civil society. “It seems to us positive that women and men, in this case women, are concerned about the problems that most affect our nation, our society.”
“The only thing we had not recommended was to change the name, they already existed as Citizens for Democracy and had been known for two years,” he reflects.
Cantillo also leaves a space for premonition when she says in a firm tone of voice: “Soon my first granddaughter will come into the world and she will be very strong because she has experienced the repression since she was in the womb of her mother.”