Back in June 2015, at a book talk at a New York City public library, an audience member had asked me about Sirley Avila, the first time I’d ever heard her name. She had been attacked on May 24. I’d tried to find out more, but reliable information from Cuba is not easy to obtain. Now, less than one year later, here she was, sitting with me and Gabriele Stein, a fellow human rights volunteer from Germany, telling us her story in Spanish, which I translated for Gabriele.
Avila told us she lives alone on a little farm with fruit trees located outside Las Tunas, a small city in central-eastern Cuba. From 2005 to 2013, she was elected three times by her community as an unpaid delegate to Poder Popular, an official legislative body, half of whose members are elected locally. In 2010, the region’s rural school was closed because it had only a few pupils. Avila protested that meant children had to walk too far, up to 12 km., but the school remained closed, although she was still reelected to her position. After continually being thwarted on the school issue, two years after its closing, on Sept. 8, 2012, Avila took a fateful step, speaking openly about her frustrations on Radio Martí. She was immediately labeled a mercenary, but no charges were brought against her and the community continued its support. She then joined UNPACU, Unión Patriótica de Cuba, an opposition group, and participated in hunger strikes in solidarity with two political prisoners, Luis Enrique Lozada and Angel Yunier, hunger strikes each lasting more than three weeks.
In December 2013, after a few days’ absence to tend to her elderly mother with Parkinson’s, Avila returned home to find her dogs and other animals all dead, apparently poisoned. The interior of her home had also been vandalized, with her bed set on fire and the cords cut to her refrigerator and television set with their motors short-circuited and burned out. (In Cuba, appliances are very expensive and hard to replace.) Then, she found her well had been poisoned after hundreds of pounds of yucca had been dumped inside and had decomposed. It took her a full two months with the help of sympathetic neighbors to remove it and restore the water quality. All that proved an ominous warning; the worst was yet to come.
Avila had dared to report the damage to her home and property to the police, accusing state security of being behind the attacks against her. Meanwhile, her neighbors remained steadfastly loyal, asking her to continue to represent them, but, instead, her district was eliminated and apportioned among other districts. In February 2014, when the long-closed school was finally reopened, community members clamored to have her reinstated and the law allowed for a protest by 25% of voters. She went to Havana and met with activist Elizardo Sánchez’s brother, Gerardo, to discuss this possibility.
|Yunisledy López, murdered on September 26, 2014 after warning Sirley|
Surely if the Cuban government did not condone or facilitate the attacks on Avila, it had a duty to protect her — the universal duty of any government toward citizens acting non-violently and within the law. Yet, it is no secret that brutal actos de repudio, acts of repudiation, are officially encouraged. Some Cubans seem to genuinely relish such invitations to beat up fellow citizens, while others claim only to be reluctantly following orders. At the 2011 party congress (another has just concluded), President Raúl Castro issued a call for the expression of righteous wrath against traitors and mercenaries: “It is necessary to make clear that we will never deny our people the right to defend their Revolution. The defense of the independence, of the conquests of socialism, and of our streets and plazas will still be the first duty of every Cuban patriot.”
|Avila recovering from injuries|