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Interviews : Bertha Antunez

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Interviewed March 2011

Bertha Antúnez Pernet was born in 1959 to a family of limited means. She began to become politically aware in 1990 when her brother, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez (“Antúnez”), was unjustly charged with “enemy propaganda” for saying in a public square that Cuba should experience the same political changes that were taking place in Eastern Europe. He was incarcerated and then charged with additional political offenses during his confinement, which extended his sentence until 2007.

Antúnez Pernet became increasingly aware of the gravity of the human rights situation in Cuba through visiting her brother in prison and learning about the conditions to which he and other prisoners of conscience were subjected.

In 1997, Antúnez Pernet and other family members of political prisoners founded an organization called the National Movement of Civic Resistance Pedro Luis Boitel to fight ill-treatment in prison. By 1999, the movement had collected over 5,000 signatures for a general amnesty of political prisoners in Cuba. It has also carried out protests in front of various prisons throughout the island. 

I saw my brother suffer all sorts of humiliations inside the prison. I went to see my brother and I found out about things I didn't know. It didn't occur to me that in Cuba the prisoners were battered so violently. They received horrible beatings inside the prisons.

They were deprived of all their rights. They made them sleep on the floor. They tortured them, they handcuffed them. They beat them and left them there for days. They dressed them when they didn't want it. They were denied medical assistance. They were denied religious assistance. It didn't occur to me that a prisoner could cry because of a severe pain in his molar tooth. And the powerlessness of so many days asking for it. Screaming, crying, or knocking on the cell doors, and a guard would come and would take him to a room in the prison and he would tell him, "What is it? Why are you screaming?" "I have a toothache." "What do you usually take?" "An aspirin." So he would go to a wall that they had over there. I'm talking about the Boniato prison, in Santiago de Cuba.

They would go to a wall where they had some torture devices. Gadgets for beating, sticks, anything they had designed for ill-treatment. And they were named after a medicine. They would go to where the aspirin would be and with that, they would beat that man up.

That didn't occur to me. I learned that visiting my brother. Defending my brother I started to get involved in that struggle. And I don't regret taking part in it. I started defending my brother and I ended up defending all the political prisoners and all the people whose rights had been violated. Around 1993, I started to get involved in the open fight.

My brother had been in prison since 1990. But I started speaking for all, and that's when we decided to create a movement of relatives, which was called "Movimiento Nacional de Resistencia Cívica y Desobediencia Civil Pedro Luis Boitel". We named it Pedro Luis Boitel because the prisoners inside the prison had already come together in a political organization that was named for Pedro Luis Boitel.

Whoever is listening to me will be asking why I've mentioned Pedro Luis Boitel twice, who is Pedro Luis Botier? In Cuba, Pedro Luis Boitel, until a few years ago, was a name that no one knew. Pedro Luis Boitel is a young man as well. Well, he was a young student who also decided to tell his truth, he also chose his freedom of speech, and that cost him going to Cuban prisons.

He was in prison for 12 years, which was the sentence he was given, and after that punishment, the regime didn't liberate him. Pedro Luis Boitel went on a hunger strike for all the violations of his rights and the rights of all the prisoners who were at his side. The regime let him die from the hunger strike, just as it has recently happened with Orlando Zapata Tamayo. That happened in 1972. Year in which nothing came out of Cuba.

It was very difficult for the Cuban people, for the prisoners, for everybody. They killed them, they battered them. They did whatever they wanted. And it was taboo. Pedro Luis Boitel, thank God, and thanks to those men who were inside the prison...As we say it, in the Cuban we use, they unveiled the story of Luis Boitel. Luis Boitel became public. He became our flag, insignia, our incentive to follow. He was a prisoner who fought, who gave his life with that hunger strike for the well-being of others, claiming the rights of the other political prisoners, which were being abused. We took him as our flag. That's why we used his name. That's why we created that movement of relatives and we used that name because the prisoners had used that name for political imprisonment as well.

So we went to the prison, we saw them, reported what they were doing to them. And we did something else. We stood outside of the prison when one of us was denied the visit. All the relatives went there and didn't leave until they gave us the visit.

Or we demanded that they gave him the medical assistance that they denied them, and none of us left until they did so. Or we demanded religious assistance or any right that we considered... We complained about a beating, whatever it was we stood there. On a commemorative date, the prisoners decided to fast for 12 hours. We stood there, outside the prison. We had the experience that previously, when that happened, when the prisoners fasted or they did something to commemorate a historical event, the guards would beat them and so forth. So we decided to stay outside the prison and do it with them.

This created, as a consequence that they moved the prisoners from one prison to another in order to break that link that had been created among the prisoners and the relatives. They wanted to break that chain. They moved the prisoners to different places of the country. But it didn't work out for them, as nothing goes well for people who do evil. All of those who do evil, things will turn out badly for them. This is the case. Every prisoner who was moved to another prison, to another province, he took that flag, that message and in every prison created a political organization for Pedro Luis Boitel was created.

Just like outside of every prison, a movement was created, a delegation of the "Movimiento Nacional de Resistencia Cívica Pedro Luis Boitel." A family linked to their relative, that was a link they couldn’t break. And this movement was able to achieve incredible things. Of course, at that time. Right now, it's even more incredible what the opposition is doing in the streets of Cuba. But at that moment, they played a role, they opened the doors. It wasn't just about going because of your prisoner, if there was a prisoner in Pinar del Río, we would go to Pinar del Río. If there was a prisoner in Oriente, we would go to Oriente.

It was something that did a lot of damage to the regime. They were very worried at that time. They tried to repress us. Because we cannot avoid or deny the repression. The repression is a consequence of the activism. And therefore, we cannot deny it. But we didn't regret doing it. We were not scared. Just the opposite. Look at how much the activism has grown inside the island. Look at how much the opposition has grown, that nowadays is an open opposition. The regime has had to say... They have to recognize there is an opposition. They have to acknowledge it. They didn't want to acknowledge it. 

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 Bertha Antunez

Bertha Antunez: Standing Against Torture “I started defending my brother, and I ended up defending all the political prisoners and all the people whose rights had been violated.” Bertha Antunez: Forced Cooperation How the Castro regime terrorizes the Cuban population to create the illusion of widespread support for the government. Bertha Antunez: Racism in Cuba “We are not going to cure you because you are a black counter-revolutionary.” More + Bertha Antunez: Nonviolent Resistance Discusses the importance of nonviolence. Bertha Antunez: Time to Support the Cuban People “The saddest thing is that the world knows, even the allies of the Cuban government, just how evil it is.”