WSJ on Sonia Garro: Two Easters in Castro's Dungeons

Monday, April 1, 2013
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

Two Easters in Castro's Dungeons

For speaking about human rights, Sonia Garro has been held in prison without charge since March 18, 2012.

It's hard to believe a year has passed since Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba and met with the Castro brothers. Tempus fugit. That is, unless you're Sonia Garro, a dissident who has been sitting in a Cuban jail since then. For her, time moves painfully slow. Ms. Garro's sister, Yamilet, recently told the independent online newspaper Diario de Cuba that Sonia "feels she has been forgotten."

That's exactly how her jailers want it.

Ms. Garro is a 37-year-old mother and a member of a women's group that supports the Ladies in White. Both groups work for the release of political prisoners. Ms. Garro just spent her second Easter in lock-up even though she has never been charged with a crime. She is now being held at the notorious Manto Negro prison.

Her husband, Ramón Alejandro Muñoz, who tried to defend his wife, was arrested at the same time and also has never been charged. He is being held at Havana's maximum-security Combinado del Este prison. Both jails are run down, rat-infested dungeons where neither international Red Cross observers nor the United Nations special rapporteur on torture are permitted. Government investigators say they are still mulling over their cases. The couple's 16-year-old daughter is in the care of her aunt.

Welcome to the surreal world of Cuban "reform," where the more the regime talks of change, the worse things get for anyone with a conscience. In the latest episode, Cuban propagandists have been flaunting the new travel policy that has allowed a few high-profile government critics out of the country. But a much larger group has been left behind. Their inhumane treatment, rarely covered by the media, underscores how little progress has been made.

Ms. Garro and Mr. Muñoz were taken from their home on March 18, 2012, a week before Benedict was scheduled to arrive on the island for a three-day visit. The Ladies in White and Ms. Garro's group, Ladies in Support, had been refused an audience with the pope but they were still agitating to see him in the hope that the Vatican would relent. Suddenly armed guards from the ministry of the interior descended on the Garro-Muñoz home.

Journalist Iván Garciá recently interviewed a neighbor who was there for a report published in Diario de Cuba on March 19. The guards "were dressed like riot police in American films. They used rubber bullets. They employed exaggerated violence; they detained Sonia and her husband Ramón. They took away almost all their belongings. It was something tremendous. They treated them as if they were terrorists." In a letter written from prison in February, Mr. Muñoz said 60 armed men invaded his house that day and one of the rubber bullets hit Ms. Garro in the left leg.

Ms. Garro is poor, black, generous in spirit and nonconformist—in short everything the regime detests and fears. Born in 1975, 17 years after Fidel Castro seized power, she has lived the racism and impoverishment of the glorious revolution. Mr. García reported that Ms. Garro told him in 2009 that she grew up in "a marginalized and violent neighborhood" but believed that if she studied and worked hard "I could change my luck."

The revolution had other ideas. One example: She studied to be a lab technician and earned highest honors. Because of this her diploma was to be presented in person by the minister of public health at graduation. Just before the ceremony a government official told her that someone else would stand in for her because her dark skin would spoil the photo. She told Mr. García that she never picked up her diploma.

Later she was fired from her job because of her husband's opposition to Fidel. That's when she learned to sew and began working out of her home to earn a living. She noticed the children in the streets in her neighborhood. Girls as young as 13 and 14 were working as prostitutes, and other children were getting hurt because they had no supervision. Ms. Garro opened a community center for them in 2007.

"The first rule was no talking politics," Ms. Garro told Mr. García. The children were encouraged to draw, sew and study music. The center was so successful—with donations from foreign charities—that she opened another center in a different neighborhood. The response from the government was to unleash a mob of citizen thugs to lay siege to her home three times and to twice beat her up. The harassment finally forced the closing of the community centers.

For her determination to try to change Cuba for the better, Ms. Garro has paid a steep price. In one seven-hour detention by state security in 2010 she suffered a broken nose.

Cuban dissidents know her story well, and it is meant as a warning to them. That you have probably never heard of Sonia Garro, put away for daring to speak about human rights ahead of Pope Benedict's visit, is a testament to the power of regime propagandists and the weakness of American journalism.