Ladies in White
Arrested: July 6, 2018
Sentence: 1 year
Charge: Failure to pay fines
Correctional Facility: Served her sentence in El Guatao Women's Prison
Released: July 6, 2019
"Yolanda continues to suffer repression and persecution due to her activism with the Damas de Blanco"
Yolanda Santana has been arrested so many times that she has lost count. She suspects that it has been about 200 times, but the number could be higher. Since joining the Damas de Blanco in 2013, she has been arrested almost every time that she has tried to go to church, when the Damas make their call for freedom and democracy in Cuba.
Sometimes, State Security agents attacked Yolanda and the other Damas on the street, beating them and forcing them into handcuffs to take them away. Other times, security forces would wait until the Damas had boarded public transportation after their protest. They would then stop the bus, round up the women and arrest them, beating and spitting on them as they did so. On multiple occasions, the arresting officers left the women locked in police cars for hours, with the windows rolled up under the blazing summer sun.
The Damas were usually released late at night, but they were sometimes held for more than 24 hours without food or sanitation services and without being allowed to communicate with their families. With every arrest, they were fined 150 pesos for supposedly threatening national security.
“I can’t understand all this about having violated security directives by leaving my house and trying to go to church; I have not committed any crime,” says Yolanda, who is 55 years old.
It was these accumulated fines that led to Yolanda’s receiving a citation to appear before the Arroyo Naranjo Tribunal on July 6, 2018. That same day, Yolanda was put on trial and, in an expedited hearing, sentenced to a year in prison for failing to pay 12 fines of 150 pesos. She was also accused of conducting illegal financial transactions and a fraudulent business scheme. The charges were not only incoherent under Cuban law, but involved alleged incidents that Yolanda has no knowledge of. In all, the prosecutor accused Yolanda of 18,000 pesos’ worth of damage.
“They did not assign me a lawyer, and I didn’t hire my own, either. I couldn’t present any evidence or have witnesses because State Security wouldn’t allow it,” says Yolanda. She refused to pay the fines, arguing that because her arrests had been arbitrary and illegal, so were the charges and fines against her.
Life in Prision
After being convicted, Yolanda was sent to Western Women’s Prison, known as “El Guatao,” which holds many women ensnared by Cuba’s arbitrary criminal justice system, including multiple political prisoners. Yolanda reports terrible conditions and mistreatment in El Guatao, as do many other women. “There was rotten food that would make you vomit; you couldn’t eat it,” Yolanda remembers. She also reports serious overcrowding, with 28 women crammed into dormitories designed for far fewer. Police and guards often struck the women held there and denied them their rights to visits or phone calls with their families.
Yolanda experienced this abuse firsthand: when she spoke up against the prison’s inhumane conditions, she was banned from using the telephone for three months. She was also harassed and threatened by other inmates, some of whom she believes were working for State Security forces.
“My children, my mother and my grandchildren all suffered greatly during my sentence, but they stayed strong to support me,” says Yolanda.
Each time that she had to say good-bye to her family after they visited her in El Guatao was a trial for Yolanda: “I had to keep my head up and keep the tears back so they wouldn’t see me in a bad state. It’s heartbreaking to be in prison.”
After a year, on July 6, 2019, Yolanda finally finished her sentence and left El Guatao.
Out of prison, but not free
Today, Yolanda shares her home with her son, her daughter-in-law and her 12-year-old grandson. Her daughter and her daughter’s three young children also live nearby. Yolanda was “both mother and father” to her two children as they grew up, and today works to support her grandchildren, who know her as “Mima.”
Not long after leaving prison, Yolanda rejoined the Damas de Blanco. She had joined the group in 2013 after her brother was taken as a political prisoner. After serving her sentence, she felt a duty to rejoin her companions and advocate for the other political prisoners held by the Cuban State.
As Yolanda continues with her activism, the State has continued to pursue her. To this day, she suffers threats and other forms of harassment from the authorities. Her children have also been detained on various occasions. On March 15, 2020, as she was leaving the Damas’ national office, Yolanda was approached by two agents who threatened to send her back to prison, this time for more serious charges carrying a sentence of 4 to 8 years. In less than a year of freedom, Yolanda has already received nine more fines.
But Yolanda’s conviction will not be easy to shake: “If they come after me again because of my activism, I’m ready for them, we’re all ready and my family are prepared. If they thought that they would break me, they were wrong, because what they did was strengthen me.”