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Why is Cuban Dissident Sonia Garro in Prison?

Categories: Caribbean, Latin America, Cuba, Citizen Media, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, International Relations, Politics, Protest

Sonia Garro has been incarcerated in Cuba for over a year. A member of the controversial Damas de Blanco, a group of women advocating for the release of political prisoners in Cuba, Garro and her husband were arrested in a violent police raid on their home in spring of 2012. She was behind bars for several months before she was issued formal charges. Originally accused of “terrorism”, she has now been charged with assault, generating public disorder and the attempted murder [1] of one of the police officers involved in the raid.

Sonia Garro Alfonso [2] from Tracey Eaton [3] on Vimeo [4].

US journalist and transparency advocate Tracey Eaton interviewed Garro in 2012.

Ideology smolders, but information remains scarce
Cases like Garro's are notoriously difficult to parse by following media on either side of the Florida Straits. Cuban state media portray serious government critics as “mercenaries” supported by US government money, while US news outlets regularly serve up rumors that all Cubans are either brainwashed into subservience by the Castro government or clamoring for an ill-defined clean slate of freedom. Neither side is especially convincing.

It is difficult to find an explanation of precisely why Garro is in prison and what precipitated the raid on her home. Leading Cuban state media outlets Granma and Cubadebate have not uttered a word about Garro's case. Dissident networks [5] and foreign media report [6] that she has been an active anti-government activist since 2009 — her activities have ranged from starting an independent community center to joining the Damas de Blanco [7], a group that is known to be backed by US government money. It is illegal for Cuban citizens to receive financial support from the US government agencies — despite its questionable legitimacy under international human rights norms, this could serve as a justification for her arrest under Cuban law. But Garro is one of many women involved in the effort — it may be that there is something specific about Garro's activities that led to the raid on her home.

Unfortunately, there is little transparency around law enforcement and judicial processes in Cuba, thus search and arrest warrants, charges, and other documentation are unavailable for public view. Either way, the long period of time during which Garro was held without charges suggests that there may not be a strong legal justification for her incarceration. Without further information, it seems most likely that Sonia Garro is in prison because of her political activities.

Did she cross a line?
In an article for Diario de Cuba [8], Ivan García wrote,

Aunque nadie conoce a ciencia cierta cuál es la delgada línea que separa lo permisivo de aquello que el Gobierno considera delito. Sonia Garro tampoco lo sabe. Ella está convencida de que solo reclamaba sus derechos.

Although no one knows the exact science that determines the thin line separating what's permitted from what that government considers a crime. Sonia doesn't know either, but she is convinced that all she did was attempt to exercise her rights.

In popular conceptualizations of political speech in Cuba, writers often refer to this “line” that García mentions. This construct can be problematic in many cases, but when it comes to financial support, the location of the proverbial line is as clear as day.

Upon crossing this line, one becomes a “gusano” or traitor, suspected of subversive behavior. Those who cross this line risk losing their jobs, severing ties with family and friends, harassment by government loyalists, and sometimes legal action. Do the Damas participate because of their political beliefs, or mostly for financial gain? Or are they motivated by some combination of the two? It is hard to know.

Some Cubans avoid the political pitfalls of this paradigm by narrowing their critiques to areas of policy and regulation, rather than ideology. But others, particularly those whose lives have been irrevocably changed by harsh penalties for political activity and small crimes alike, generally seem more willing to risk the consequences both of making broad, sweeping critiques of the system as a whole, and of accepting foreign support that allows them to sustain their livelihoods, despite the ways that this can leave them marginalized within society. Sonia Garro took major risks by engaging in anti-government activities and joining the Damas group. And now she is paying a high price for it.