International Women’s Day 2021: Reflection on Cuban women leaders

Women leaders in communist regimes are few and far between, such as Jiang Qing in China, Elena Ceaușescu in Romania, and Vilma Espín in Cuba became high profile figures because of their respective husbands, and owed whatever power they had to these male leaders. Independent women with popular support and their own power base did not fare well under these regimes.

In the Cuban case strong women, not backing the Castro brothers, were subjected to violent repression and exile or death. On International Women’s Day 2021 will focus on three cases in chronological order.


On November 19, 1991 Cuban poet Maria Elena Cruz Varela, who nonviolently dissented asking for democratic change, was assaulted by a mob organized by the dictatorship that tried to force feed the poet her own words. She wrote about the assault in her book, Dios en las cárceles cubanas (God in the Cuban jails):

“They broke my mouth trying to make me swallow the leaflets that members of my group had distributed throughout Havana. Afterwards I spent three days brutally besieged, imprisoned in my own home with my two children, with no water, no electricity, no food, no cigarettes. We heard what the huge speakers never stopped amplifying, allegorical songs to the country, the necessary punishment of traitors, and anyone who wanted to could shout at me, organized, of course, the slogans they pleased: Comrade worm, we are going to execute you by firing squad!”

Amnesty International in their 1993 Women’s Action report published on January 19, 1993 detailing cases of six women from around the world who had been threatened, imprisoned, and in one case killed.

The human rights organization described what happened next to the Cuban poet and dissident. María Elena Cruz Varela was a leading Cuban political dissident in the island. This is how Amnesty International described her

As a member of a small, unofficial opposition group, the Cuban Government has accused her and other dissidents of writing “offensive, slanderous pamphlets” which call for public demonstrations and question the authority of the National Assembly.

For this reason she has been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, and has been in custody since November 1991. María Elena Cruz Varela is the President of Criterio Alternativo, Alternative View, which is a part of the Concertación Democrática Cubana, Cuban Democratic Convergence.

Cuban Democratic Convergence is one of a number of small, unofficial groupings of varying tendencies, some overtly advocating general political change and others concerned more specifically with respect for religious, trade union or general human rights, which have emerged in Cuba over the past three or four years.

None has received official recognition from the Cuban authorities. For a brief period in 1988/89, the activities of such groups appeared to be generally tolerated by the authorities. However, from the second half of 1989 onwards, the government attitude hardened and the level of harassment and arrests began to increase.

The activities of such groups have so far been largely peaceful and most have consistently expressed their opposition to the use of violence to bring about their aims. Despite this, since mid-1991 the authorities have taken increasingly strong measures to counter any signs of dissent and many members of dissident organizations have been arrested or otherwise harassed for carrying out peaceful legitimate activities related to freedom of expression, association and assembly as guaranteed under international law. In particular, the leaders of several of the most prominent groups have been arrested and imprisoned on charges ranging from illegal association, defamation and “enemy propaganda” to rebellion and revealing state security secrets.

María Elena Cruz Varela, who is also a prize-winning poet, was arrested in November 1991 after she and other leading dissidents had met with the President of the Government of Asturias in Spain during his official visit to Havana. She was detained after a campaign of harassment took place at her home between 19 and 21 November 1991 in the course of which several individuals reportedly entered the house and physically attacked her, trying to force her to swallow documents found there.

She was brought to trial on 28 November 1991at a municipal court, together with three other activists. She was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment on charges of illegal association and defamation. She began serving her sentence in Combinado del Sur Prison, Matanzas, and was transferred to Carlos J. Finlay Military Hospital in April or May 1992 for treatment for gynaecological problems.

For a certain period while being held there, she was reportedly subjected to long hours of questioning by state security officials. She is still believed to be held there at present. Amnesty International considers María Elena Cruz Varela to be a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned for acting in accordance with her conscientiously-held beliefs and calls for her immediate and unconditional release.

Maria Elena was released from prison and went into exile in 1994. Twenty seven years later she remains there.


Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, spoke truth to power and protested in the streets of Cuba demanding an amnesty for Cuban political prisoners. She had been a school teacher, before her husband was jailed for his independent journalism in 2003 along with more than 75 other civil society members. Laura was greatly admired both inside and outside of the island for founding the Ladies in White movement after the Black Cuban Spring of 2003. She, and the group of women she led, nonviolently challenged the Castro regime in the streets of Havana initially, and eventually across the island. 

Laura reached out to the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of 75 prisoners of conscience jailed in March of 2003. This included her husband, Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, and the Ladies in White carried out a sustained nonviolent campaign that after nine years obtained the freedom of their loved ones.

Since she did not disband the Ladies in White when her husband returned home. Laura recognized that the laws had not changed, that prisoners of conscience remained behind bars and that she would continue her human rights activism. Laura Pollán died under suspicious circumstances on October 14, 2011.


Cuban dissident Sirley Ávila León, age 56, was gravely wounded in a machete attack on May 24, 2015 by Osmany Carrión who had been “sent by state security thugs” and that she is sure that the aggression “was politically motivated.” 

The attack was severe enough that she suffered deep cuts to her neck and knees, lost her left hand and nearly lost her right arm. Sirley had been a local official who had sought the reopening of a school for Cuban children, and drew the ire of the dictatorship with her persistent demands.

To obtain adequate medical care she had to leave Cuba in 2016, and when she returned death threats escalated, and her family asked Sirley to go into exile, and she did.