Unusual Alliance for Cuba Tackling Child Sexual Abuse

By Ivett Gonzalez  (IPS)

The psychologists Valia Solís (l) and Rocío Fernández provide specialized support to Algeldris Pérez and her adolescent son, a victim of sexual assault three years ago, but who only told her now. Both they and her partner, with whom the teenager confided, receive support at the Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue in the city of Cárdenas, in Cuba. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/ IPS

HAVANA TIMES – The normal hubbub of kids playing in Cuban neighborhoods has been extinguished in one part of Cardenas city, where Mayelin Cuellar’s and Miguel Angel Gonzalez’s family live, ever since they reported a neighbor for raping their son.

Distressed by the tough situation they are going through, Cuellar is afraid that “it will be a very long time before his son overcomes this and returns to his old self,” he told IPS at the non-governmental Cuban Christian Center of Reflection and Dialogue (CCRD) in this city, 150 kms east of Havana.

This family, who says that they don’t follow any religion, has been receiving specialist support from the CCRD, which has had an unusual partnership with the police’s Minors’ Unit in the province of Matanzas, which Cardenas belongs to, working on sexual abuse cases that involve children and teenagers.

This alliance between a civil society organization and the local authorities might be the only one to exist in the entire country, as the Socialist government only allowed some NGOs (like the CCRD) to exist in the late ‘80s. However, activists still criticize the government’s lack of understanding and the very limited channels that civic organizations have to grow in a legal sense, especially when it comes to human rights.

This project reveals the social space that religious communities have gained in a country where ties between churches and the State are still being rebuilt, after the Cuban State stopped being atheist and became “secular” in 1992, which is upheld in the new Constitution that came into effect on April 10th.

The psychologist Maidenys Aguerrebere assists Miguel Angel Gonzalez and Mayelin Royal, a couple who await the trial against the alleged rapist of their son, aged 14, at the Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue, in the city of Cardenas, Matanzas.  Photo: Jorge Luis Banos / IPS

“As the child was only going to school, I didn’t think that something like this might happen with our closest neighbor and in our own home,” the mother continued, amidst tears. Her son was a victim of sexual abuse three years ago, when he was only 11 years old.

Gonzalez isn’t the boy’s biological father, but he’s been looking after him ever since he was really little. “He told me that the neighbor had abused him. He is a child with special abilities and watching a foreign TV show, he realized what had happened,” Gonzalez says, who goes to the CCRD meetings with his wife.

The now teenager told him exactly what had happened to him and then his mother put an end to the abuse on April 3rd and went to the police to file a complaint and the boy underwent medical checks. The couple have two children each from their former relationships, but the others are older and only the victim lives with them.

“If only they exposed these kinds of cases on Cuban TV, which would allow people to open their eyes,” the private driver in this city weighed in, where child sexual abuse is a taboo subject and many families hide this reality because of preconceptions and shame.

In the “Cuban Report about the prevention and combat of human trafficking and victim protection”, which the government normally carries out every year, it states that cases of sexual abuse against minors have formed part of their zero-tolerance policy on crime since 2013.

The latest available figures reveal that 2,019 child victims were registered in the country in 2017, of whom 985 suffered lewd acts, 455 grooming, 293 rape, 206 indecent assault, 52 pedophilia, 18 statutory rape and 9 incest. In 2015, the report announced that 2,174 children had been victims.

Sanctions in the Cuban Penal Code (which has been in effect since 1987) sentence these aggravated crimes depending on the relationship with the child or the aggressor’s responsibility to that child. Sentences range from fines to 30 years in prison or even the death penalty, although the last execution in Cuba took place in 2003.

“It’s important to reproduce this partnership elsewhere,” psychologist Valia Solis urges, who has been collaborating with the police alongside her colleagues Rocio Fernandez and Maidenys Aguerrebere ever since 2014, when a new methodology was implemented in these kinds of cases.

Psychologists work with experts and other specialists to “check” victims, which in this case are called “specialized interrogations,” and seeks to prevent revictimization of the child or teenager. The center even offers its headquarters as a friendly space for families to come who prefer to do these checks outside their home.

Just like the other specialists, they are obligated by the law to report crimes that come to light in their sessions. They also receive summons from criminal courts to give their expert testimony. Meanwhile, police authorities recommend the CCRD’s specialist services to families.

“One of the center’s main contributions is specialist support for families,” Solis says about the free service they offer via sessions for child or teenage victims of sexual abuse. She has followed 156 cases from 2014 up until the present day, especially in Matanzas.

Many families come to these sessions to receive psychological treatment and advice.

“I can’t be locked up at home the whole time, I have to get back to work. Ever since it happened, I go with my son to school,” Algeidris Perez says, who is the mother of a teenager who was a victim of indecent assault, a crime which involves showing your genitalia or carrying out sexual acts.

In early April, Perez sent her 14-year-old son to go and buy something from the store near their home in the international resort town of Varadero, in Cardenas. The teenager didn’t find what he was looking for there and went, without asking permission, to another store further away, where the crimes being investigated by the police took place.

Two teenagers play in the Antonio Maceo park, in the municipality of Centro Habana, one of those that make up the capital of Cuba, a country where the problem of child sexual violence is still a taboo subject and the vulnerability of boys, as well as girls, is not public. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

“Now, he’s a lot calmer, although he feels a little ashamed for having disobeyed me and is afraid about what might happen in the neighborhood, of what people will say,” Perez continued concerned, who is a loyal follower of an Evangelical Church and goes with her son to the CCRD sessions.

In their case, there is additional stress because the aggressor got out on bail and Perez says that they have been threatened and that he calls her son a liar.

Without any hesitation, psychologist Maidenys Aguerrebere promotes the need for the first thing a minor and victim of sexual abuse hears to be “I believe you”, especially the person they confide in. That’s why, she has called for training in this regard for families, health professionals and teachers.

“Most of the time, violent people have an image of correctness in society,” the expert highlights about crimes that are normally carried out by people close to these minors, although teenagers are also vulnerable to people outside of their families.

A young sales assistant who lives and works in Cardenas also goes to see Aguerrebere. “When you have children, especially girls, you can’t leave them with others,” this mother said about her 5-year-old daughter, who was a victim of lewd acts carried out by a close relative.

“Most of the time, you think that sexual abuse only affects girls. There are more cases of girls, but recently there has been an increase in the number of cases of boys,” explains psychologist Rocio Fernandez. “This happens in all kinds of families, whether they are dysfunctional or not,” she says destroying the myths surrounding child sexual abuse.