The Cuban government exerted extraordinary efforts this week to keep pro-democracy activists out of sight of international media. They failed, with one dissident demanding freedom for prisoners of conscience live on ESPN. That dissident: Yasser Rivero Boni, a political prisoner himself and the son of a member of the Ladies in White movement.
Rivero Boni interrupted a live broadcast of ESPN, given the floor by a flustered reporter Bob Ley to shout “freedom for political prisoners” and “down with the Castros.” His protest lasted seconds before Cuban special police arrived in cars and shoved him and his accomplices into their cars, whisking them away. A stunned Ley described the descent of police on the scene as “literally out of nowhere.” Ley also published an image of the pamphlets Rivero had distributed on sight, demanding the rights of due process, free expression, and free elections.
The day of the broadcast, few Americans knew of Rivero, much less his fate following his demonstration. Rivero has been subsequently released – though he remains on only conditional release due to a prior charge of defacing government property – as has spoked to Cuban-American media about his protest.
Speaking to Martí Noticias on Havana’s famous Malecón, Rivero explained that six members of his group, the Forum for Rights and Liberties, organized the protest. “I knew something would come out in the world, but not that it would have this much of an impact,” he says of the broadcast. He notes that they were all arrested, as the video shows, and tentatively released. His case was special, he explains, because “I am on extrajudicial leave and my mother is a Lady in White.”
The Ladies in White is a pro-democracy dissident group composed of the mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, and other relatives of Cuban political prisoners. His mother, Yaquelin Boni, joined the group while he was still in jail.
Of the protest, Rivero said, “I felt proud to be Cuban and to be able to show the will of the Cuban people – of those of us suffering more than 50 years under totalitarian rule… I am proud of putting in my grain of sand in the struggle of the Cuban people for universal recognition of human rights.”
Yaquelin Boni is in Miami after years of political struggle, though she told Miami’s Univision affiliate Wednesday night that she is yearning to return to the struggle with her son. “He is a living example of the consequences of Cubans expressing themselves freely,” she said. Boni explained the reason for her son’s use of sunglasses: he lost sight in one of his eyes following a particularly brutal beating by Cuban police.
“We appreciate President Obama having made the attempt of making Raúl Castro understand, recognize what human rights are and what respect to fellow humans is, but that doesn’t do anything. That doesn’t help the average Cuban,” she said of President Obama’s visit to the island this week.
Rivero’s beating made news in 2014, when his family demanded he be released from prison to receive proper medical care. The particular beating that took his sight devastated his right eye, triggering a traumatic cataract. His iris, retina, and eye lens were all destroyed. His current furlough is the product of having suffered so many beatings, the Cuban government found him legitimately entitled to medical leave. He will be forced to return to prison in August – or sooner, if he chooses to participate in a political assembly again.
Rivero was far from the only dissident arrested violently during President Obama’s visit. Shortly before Air Force One landed in Havana on Sunday, Cuban police arrested more than 50 political activists, at least 50 of those members of the Ladies in White group that had recently left their weekly attendance at Catholic Mass. Also included in the group were the artist Danilo Maldonado (“El Sexto”), and Forum for Rights and Liberties co-chief Antonio Rodiles. Anti-communist punk rocker Gorki Águila and Zaqueo Báez, the dissident who was beaten and arrested in front of Pope Francis in September, were placed under house arrest earlier that day.