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Interviews : Alejandrina García de la Riva

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Alejandrina García de la Riva was born on April 12, 1966, in Matanzas, Cuba. Her first years of life were spent on a sugar mill in the municipality of Calimente. She went to technical school at the Álvaro Reynoso Institute in order to study agriculture and agronomy and held jobs as a statistician, grocer, independent journalist, and a correspondent for Servicio Noticuba, a press agency considered illegal by the Cuban government.

In 1983, Alejandrina married Diosdado González Marrero, a decision that ultimately led her down the path of nonviolent civil resistance. Together the couple has two children and three grandchildren.

In March 2003, Alejandrina’s husband was one of 75 nonviolent dissidents to be arrested in a massive government crackdown known as the Black Spring. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In response, Alejandrina and other wives, mothers, and sisters of those imprisoned during the Black Spring founded the Ladies in White [Damas de Blanco].

The Ladies in White became a formidable civil society organization that planned weekly marches through the streets of Havana, peacefully protesting for the freedom of political prisoners and the expansion of civil liberties and political freedoms in Cuba. As a result of her participation, Alejandrina was arrested and harassed by the Cuban authorities on numerous occasions.

Alejandrina played a crucial role in orchestrating the release of her husband and other Black Spring political prisoners. The Ladies in White lobbied Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the leading representative of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba, and convinced him to negotiate for the release of the prisoners. By 2011, after years of protests and several hunger strikes, the Black Spring dissidents, including Alejandrina’s husband, were released. While the majority of the prisoners went into exile, Alejandrina and Diosdado chose to remain in Cuba.

Alejandrina lives in Mantazas Province and remains active in the Ladies in White Movement. 

2010 marked seven years that the 75 had been in prison. We had seven days of events in the capital [Havana]. The Ladies [in White or Damas de Blanco in Spanish] met and other women joined us. We had seven days of events and seven days of repression, but we would still go out into the streets the next day.

[The Ladies in White is a civil society organization founded by the mothers, spouses and daughters of 75 dissidents who were imprisoned by Cuban authorities during the Black Spring crackdown in March 2003. They practice nonviolent resistance against the repression of civil liberties on the island of Cuba.]

A week after those seven days, the State Security did not allow any woman to go to the churches. They packed the front of their homes with police and the women were not allowed to leave. Only four or five Ladies [in White] attended the Church of Santa Rita and they were restricted. Those were three difficult weeks of repression, surrounding that second Sunday. They [State Security] made loud noises with pots against our ears. [Cuban State Security was attempting to disrupt the peaceful protests of the Ladies in White by generating constant loud noise.]

They would keep us standing in the sun for many hours, surrounded. They would not let us move. The accredited foreign press was there.

Maybe it was those images that went around the world (I hope it was one of the reasons) that made Cardinal Jaime Ortega go to Santa Rita’s Church to see with his own eyes what they were doing to us. [Cardinal Jaime Ortega (1936 - ) is the Archbishop of Havana.]

He called Raul Castro and told him what they were doing to us was unimaginable. The regime arranged a meeting with Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino and they talked. [Raul Castro (1931 - ) is the younger brother of Fidel Castro. He assumed leadership of the Communist Party and the country in 2008.]

I know this because in those talks [with Castro], [Ortega] quoted the five Ladies in White who were there those three Sundays to speak with him: Laura Pollán, Berta Soler, Julia Núñez, Loida [Valdés] and me [five founding members of the Ladies in White]. This happened in May of 2010.

The Cardinal told us he was aware of everything that had been happening, especially, the last three Sundays. He said that he complained to the government authorities about what they were doing to us.

He said he requested a personal meeting with Raul Castro to say they could not continue to do what they were doing to us. That they, the Church, would not allow any more [harassment].

The conversation with the Cardinal ended. We suggested to the Cardinal why the [Group of 75] should be freed. Many [of them] had been in the process of leaving Cuba as political refugees before going to prison, so why not let them out? [We asked that he] suggest to Raúl Castro that he let them leave the country.

We proposed he [should] pass on to Raul Castro that if the regime wanted to get rid of the problem of the 75 and all that was happening, that the 75 be released and whoever accepted leaving Cuba could do so.

They took note. The meeting ended and the next week he invited back the same Damas. We met again with the Cardinal who said: "I had a personal conversation with Raúl Castro. I relayed everything you said."

He [Castro] accepted [the idea]. Not [just that the prisoners could leave] alone, that they could take their whole families. We then realized they [the regime] did not want the Damas de Blanco either. Taking families meant also the prisoners’ wives, daughters, and mothers.

When the Cardinal said he had Raúl Castro’s reply and that they would be released we were happy. We hugged and cried with happiness because the men would no longer be in prison.

We even kissed the Cardinal without asking his permission. We saw that it was a triumph. That what we had endured and what we had fought for had not been in vain. That it was a success and we made it happen.

That is what the Cardinal said and we were very happy. We started talking about how it could be. He told us to talk with each of our families. That they would figure out the process. Each one would be contacted. That he personally would be the one to call each prisoner to make sure it was real and that it was not us who were pushing for the families to leave.

That they were leaving of their own will, not because of pressure from us. We wanted to resolve the problem. That is what happened.

When we left there each of us started calling, to inform them that if they wanted out of Cuba, that we had met with the Cardinal and that Raúl [Castro] had agreed to their leaving. We did not know what would happen to those who wanted to stay.

We had a third meeting with the Cardinal. In the meeting he asked us to visit embassies to see who could take in each of these men. We started immediately. Laura Pollan, Berta [Soler] and I visited some embassies. The biggest job was Laura Pollan’s.

The Embassy of Spain was an immense task. The Czech Republic, Canada, and Chile all agreed to take the 75. The prisoners who wanted to leave could do so.

We did not know that along with those prisoners [the 75], others who had long since been prisoners would also be released, which was also good.

There were prisoners who had spent many years in prison. We felt that we had succeeded. Those who agreed [to the terms] left Cuba.

Perhaps it was not the ideal way, from prison to the plane. It was not the most appropriate. But I think they left because they wanted to do so.

Those who stayed did so because they wanted to stay. To be honest: none was pressured. Each one left because he wanted and chose the country he wanted.

That was how they were freed. 

Cuba, an island nation of 11.4 million people in the northern Caribbean Sea, is a totalitarian state.

Fidel Castro led the 1959 Cuban Revolution and ruled the country for 49 years before formally relinquishing power to his younger brother Raul in 2008. Raul Castro is the current head of state and First Secretary of the Communist Party, which is recognized by the Cuban Constitution as the only legal political party and “the superior leading force of society and of the state.” Raul Castro has said that he will step down from power at the age of 86 in 2018.

Cuba was a territory of Spain until the Spanish-American War. The United States assumed control of the island until 1902, when the Republic of Cuba became formally independent. A fledgling democracy was established, with the U.S. continuing to play a strong role in Cuban affairs.

In 1952, facing an impending electoral loss, former president Fulgencio Batista staged a successful military coup and overthrew the existing government. While his first term as elected president in the 1940s largely honored progressive politics, universal freedoms, and the Cuban Constitution of 1940, Batista’s return to power in the 1950s was a dictatorship marked by corruption, organized crime and gambling. He held power until 1959 when he was ousted by Fidel Castro’s rebel July 26th Movement.

While promising free elections and democracy, Castro moved quickly to consolidate power. By 1961, Castro had declared Cuba to be a communist nation.

Castro’s communist government nationalized private businesses, lashed out at political opponents, and banned independent civil society. As Cuba aligned itself with the Soviet Union, Cuban-American relations soured, including a U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to war, after the Soviets installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, prompting a U.S. naval embargo.

Since the revolution, Cuba has remained a one-party state. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the evaporation of Soviet economic support, Cuba loosened some economic policies, became more open to foreign investment, and legalized use of the U.S. dollar. By the late 1990s, Venezuela had become Cuba’s chief patron, thanks to the close relationship between the Castro brothers and Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez.

The regime continues to exercise authoritarian political control, clamping down on political dissent and mounting defamation campaigns against dissidents, portraying them as malignant U.S. agents. In a massive crackdown in 2003 known as the Black Spring, the government imprisoned 75 of Cuba’s best-known nonviolent dissidents.

The Cuban government does not respect the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion. The government and the Communist Party control all news media, and the government routinely harasses and detains its critics, particularly those who advocate democracy and respect of human rights. Frequent government actions against dissidents often take the form of attacks by regime-organized mobs. Prison conditions are harsh and often life-threatening, and the courts operate as instruments of the Communist Party rather than conducting fair trials.

Cuba relaxed its travel laws in 2013, allowing some prominent dissidents to leave and return to the country. It continues to experiment with modest economic reforms but remains committed to communist economic orthodoxy.

In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, Cuba was designated as “not free” and is grouped near the bottom of the world’s nations, with severely restricted civil rights and political liberties.

More from Alejandrina García de la Riva

Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: Freeing 75 Dissidents “We even kissed the Cardinal without asking permission.” Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: Street Journalism Alejandrina explores the socio-economic challenges of Cubans. Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: Hunger Strike “I'll go on a hunger strike because something must happen. We must break the ice.” More + Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: Accessing Technology Alejandrina discusses modern technology in Cuba. Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: The Ladies in White “We endure the same violence, marginalization, poverty, lack of rights.” Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: The Black Spring “They even seized my wedding photos so that not even the memory would remain.” Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: Challenges for the Opposition “There is repression every day.” Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: What is Freedom? “Not being afraid. Not shrinking, breathing and saying that everything is fine.” Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: John Paul II in Cuba “The visit of His Holiness John Paul II at that time was scary for the regime.” Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: Inequality In Cuba “Milk is scarce, there is no meat, soap is scarce, oil is scarce.” Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: Married to a Political Prisoner “I will not leave until I see your father.” Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: Totalitarian Cuba “In our nation there is nothing. Everything is destroyed. Families do not live in peace.” Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: International Support “There was an awakening. They were encouraged by our acts and began to help us.” Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: Background Alejandrina discusses her background. Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: Change in Cuba? “I think everything in Cuba is worse.” Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva: Message to Dissidents “Nothing is forever and someday it has to change.”