Berta Soler, the leader of the anti-communist Cuban dissident group the Ladies in White, was arrested on Thursday after stepping outside her home, which is also the group’s headquarters.
Witnesses say she was not dressed in white, the color her group wears to protest the government and had not apparently engaged in any objectionable activity upon her detention. She was reportedly leaving to participate in an event to discuss access to the internet on the island.
“They arrested her at the door of her home,” fellow dissident Martha Beatriz Roque told the Miami-based outlet Martí Noticias. “She was not wearing white, it is not known why they arrested her… No one knows anything because nobody could leave [the house] or interfere in it.”
The news site Cubanet, which originally reported the arrest, claimed that Soler’s husband and former political prisoner Ángel Moya was in the home at the time of the arrest but unable to go outside during the incident. Moya was “thrown on the floor and beaten” during an anti-communist protest on Sunday that triggered a mob attack on his and Soler’s home.
That protest was the first in two weeks for the Ladies in White. The group — comprised of the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and other female relatives of political prisoners — suspended its regular Sunday protests for two weeks following the death of dictator Fidel Castro. At the time, Soler said that she was personally “very happy” that he had died,” but “we have chosen not to take the streets so that the Cuban regime cannot say that we are provoking [our arrests] or that we are opportunists.” It marked the first time in 13 years that the Ladies in White did not protest.
In that same interview with the Spanish outlet El Español, Soler warned that the repression against Cuban dissidents would increase following Castro’s death, and that “Raúl is as much a dictator and murderer as Fidel.”
They returned to the streets last Sunday, however. Five were arrested and five placed on house arrest for holding up signs with the words “human rights” on them and demanding freedom for political prisoners.
While Soler was not arrested on that occasion, she is regularly beaten, detained, and shipped far from her home during these Sunday protests. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), an NGO that tracked politically-motivated arrests on the island, reported that Soler was arrested three times in November alone — a number suppressed by her decision to keep the Ladies from marching following Castro’s death.
Soler’s arrest highlights a growing crackdown on the island’s most vocal anti-communist dissidents that began the day Raúl Castro announced his brother’s death with the arrest of Danilo Maldonado, a Havana artist known by his nom de plume “El Sexto.” Maldonado was arrested after celebrating Castro’s death in a Facebook Live video and spray-painting the words “he’s gone” on a wall in Havana. Following his arrest, his mother, María Victoria Machado, reported that he suspected police of sedating him in prison after repeatedly shouting “down with Raúl” from his jail cell and had refused to eat.
On her next visit to the prison this week, Machado found that her son had been severely beaten. To prevent him from attempting any protest action during International Human Rights Day (December 10), police had beaten him and kept him in solitary confinement naked, without food, for three days.
On Wednesday, Maldonado’s partner, Alexandra Martínez, arrived in Cuba. In a video from Havana, she said police refused to let her see him because “I am a foreigner” (Martínez lives in Miami) and only knew Maldonado’s fate due to poor timing on the police’s part.
“After three hours waiting… a white truck passed by with Danilo in there and he started screaming that they were taking him to El Combinado del Este,” she said. “We have not heard anything else about him, he hasn’t called.”
El Combinado del Este is a maximum security prison on the outskirts of Havana. While he has been sentenced to prison in the past for his art, this is the first time he has been transferred to such a prison. Maldonado has yet to be formally charged, though his family expects charges of defacing public property.