Berta Soler Fernández was born in Cuba in 1963. She studied microbiology and became a hospital technician in Havana. In 1988, Berta married Angel Moya Acosta, an opposition activist who became one of 75 nonviolent dissidents arrested during the March 2003 crackdown known as the Black Spring.
Berta’s activism began after Cuban authorities imprisoned her husband in 2003. Joining with other spouses and family members of the Black Spring prisoners, she became a founding member of an organization called the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) that demanded the release of their loved ones and advocated for greater civil liberties in Cuba.
In October 2004, the Ladies in White staged protests in front of the Communist Party’s headquarters in Revolution Square, pressuring the government to allow Berta’s husband to undergo surgery for a herniated disc. The protest went on for two days until the regime permitted Angel’s operation.
Berta was a central figure 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, the Black Spring dissidents, including Berta’s husband, were released. While the majority of the prisoners went into exile, Berta and Angel chose to remain in Cuba.
In 2005, the European Parliament awarded the Ladies in White its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Berta, along with the other representatives of the organization, planned to receive the honor in person. However, the Cuban government denied them passports and they were unable to attend the ceremony. In 2013, after the regime had relaxed its repressive travel restrictions, Berta received permission to leave the island and led a delegation to accept the 2005 Sakharov Prize on behalf of the Ladies in White.
In 2011, Berta assumed the leadership of the Ladies in White following the death of the organization’s co-founder, Laura Pollan. She continues the struggle for a free and democratic Cuba.
The Black Spring occurred on March 18, 19, and 20 of 2003 when the government invaded our homes and meticulously raided 75 homes, leaving them destroyed. They destroyed our families and did not care that children were involved. The raids in search for subversive materials lasted from seven to eight hours. Nothing was found except handwritten or typewritten documents.
They took them away. We thought it would be for one or two days, like they had done with others in the past. Within three days they were all taken away. But they were sentenced to prison from six to 28 years. Only one – [Reinaldo] Labrada served six years. Some who fell ill were released to house arrest, such as the late Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Hector Palacios, Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello, and Raul Rivero.
The rest generally served eight years in prison. Eight years during which we, the Ladies in White, were united by our pain. On March 30, 2003, in the Villa Marista [Villa Marista is a prison in Havana run by the Ministry of Interior. Many political prisoners have been incarcerated there.] where 25 or 27 were detained from Havana, we decided to go to Saint Rita’s church. The Leonor Perez Mothers’ Committee had met there since 2000. We decided to advocate for the freedom of our loved ones. [The Leonor Perez Mothers’ Committee is an opposition group established in 1992 that advocates for the release of political prisoners. It is named for the mother of Cuba’s national hero, Jose Marti.]
I live in Alamar, an eastern zone of Havana, in an apartment block. My husband was not present during the raid because he was taken away quickly. He shouted, “Long live human rights! I am not a murderer! I am a defender of human rights!” I then, too, began to shout so that the people knew that the arrest was not because of drugs, rather because my husband was a human rights defender.
Perhaps each of the raids of the Group of 75 was different. But, the families began to inform the neighbors that they were not bandits, thieves, drug addicts, or drug traffickers but rather defenders and promoters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
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.