Sons’ jailing turns Cuban mothers into activists
Two years ago, Marta Perdomo and Liset Fonseca were two unassuming Cuban women with little interest in politics and no social media footprint.
That changed overnight when their sons were arrested in a mass roundup that followed the biggest anti-government protests in the history of the communist island. Today, they are fervent activists.
“Liberty for Jorge and Nadir. Enough. They are innocent,” screams a poster that adorns the home of Perdomo in San Jose de las Lajas, a city of some 80,000 people southeast of Havana.
Her life became filled with “pain and anguish” on July 16, 2021, the 60-year-old seamstress told AFP, when police came to take both her two sons: 40-year-old IT professor Jorge, and Nadir, an English teacher aged 39.
Then, “when we started making complaints, the state security started calling us and the threats began,” she said.
Since the arrests, Perdomo says she needs tablets to sleep.
Also on July 16, police took Roberto Perez, the 40-year-old son of Fonseca, a fellow resident of San Jose de las Lajas.
“Knowing that he innocent but in prison is an enormous sadness,” the 62-year-old homemaker told AFP in tears.
The three men were among thousands of Cubans who spilled onto the streets of dozens of cities and towns on July 11 and 12, 2021 in a spontaneous outburst of frustration.
Demonstrators chanted “Freedom!” and “We are hungry!” amid economic strife, medical and food shortages which have gotten no better in the two years since then.
A crackdown by the security forces left one dead, dozens injured and more than 1,500 people detained, according to rights groups.
- The biggest ask: freedom –
The government says 488 protesters have been sentenced, some for up to 25 years in jail for crimes including “sedition.”
Jorge Martin Perdomo is serving eight years for “assault, contempt and public disorder” and his brother six years for similar crimes — all “fabricated” according to their mother.
Perez, who was among a group of protesters defacing a poster of Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, was given a 10-year sentence.
“They committed perhaps the biggest crime of all: asking for freedom” in Cuba, said Perdomo.
Along with Fonseca, she has vowed to continue the fight for the protesters’ freedom “whatever the cost.”
In a country where political opposition is illegal and all newspapers and broadcasters are aligned to the one-party State, one of the few ways to do so is on social media.
Learning the ropes of online activism was almost as difficult as dealing with the “pressure” and “threats” of the authorities, recounted Perdomo.
“We started protesting without knowing what we were doing,” she recalled. “I didn’t know how to do a direct” internet broadcast and “my legs were shaking” when she did her first.
- ‘More radical’ –
The women are naturally scared.
Fonseca said five other women in the city have sons behind bars but remain quiet for “fear of losing their jobs.”
She herself was once warned during a prison visit that: “Unless you stay quiet, your son will pay the price.”
But the pair is not giving up.
“If I died or something happened to me, on my grave would be written: ‘Freedom for Jorge and Nadir.’ But I think I will not die yet. I think I will be alive to see them come back to this house,” said Perdomo.
During the interview with AFP at her kitchen table, Perdomo’s phone rings and her face lights up.
“My boys,” she says, and indeed it is a call from Nadir.
“Everything is fine, Mom,” he told his mother on speaker phone. “We are strong and… proud of everything we did.”
Minutes later, Jorge called too.
“That day (of the protest) we had a more intuitive awareness” of what was going on in Cuba, he told AFP on his mother’s phone.
“But today our thinking has become more radical and we believe, obviously, in all the ideals of freedom,” he said.
Perdomo and Fonseca form part of a group called “Cuba in Mourning” made up of the mothers and wives of participants in what have become known as the J11 protests.
They wear only black.
With few if any signs of change afoot, the women are hopeful something might come from a meeting at the Vatican last month between President Miguel Diaz-Canel and Pope Francis — just months after a Church envoy called in Havana for the release of jailed protestors.
It is time, said Perdomo, “for this injustice to end.”
Dissident artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, also jailed ever since trying to join the protests two years ago, has begun a hunger strike to demand his release, his girlfriend — exiled in the United States — said on Facebook Friday.
Alcantara, 35, was sentenced last year to five years in prison for “offending the symbols of the homeland, contempt and public disorder.
This would be his sixth hunger strike, according to his partner and fellow activist Claudia Genlui.
Named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2021, Alcantara was arrested when he set out to join the protests.
©️ Agence France-Presse