A slim Cuban woman speaks from a wheelchair at the front of the room.

The woman speaks softly for 10 minutes in Spanish, pausing at intervals to wait for her translator’s words. Her left arm ends at the wrist, and she cradles it in her right hand.

“If the Cuban people are going to risk their lives, better to risk them fighting for their lives in Cuba.” —Sirley Ávila León

“My name is Sirley Ávila León. I am Cuban and reside in Cuba,” she says. “I was elected as a delegate to the Municipal Assembly of People’s Power in Cuba by my neighbors in June 2005, for the rural area of Limones.”

There is nothing about the woman’s appearance to indicate “dangerous political dissident.” But her wounds attest that Cuba’s communist regime sees things differently.

The scene was the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, where Sirley Ávila León last month received the organization’s Human Rights Prize.

For more than a decade, Ávila has been a splinter in the foot of the Cuban government, a low-profile but aggressive advocate for the rights of her family and her community.

Last year, Ávila nearly was murdered in a brutal machete attack—the work, she says, of state security thugs.

(Photo: Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation)

“I lived a life indoctrinated by the [Castro] regime,” Sirley Ávila León says. (Photo: Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation)

Now in Miami on a medical visa, Ávila, 57, is recuperating just as aggressively from the machete attack.

She spoke to The Daily Signal through translator John Suarez, international secretary of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, who runs a blog called Notes from the Cuban Exile Quarter. The interview took place in two parts between her medical appointments—and as she prepared to testify before Congress July 13 concerning Cuba’s cruelties and planned how to return to Cuba as quickly as possible.

“Unfortunately, my doctors have given me a diagnosis which tells me I won’t be able to walk long distances,” Ávila said, “so I’m desperately trying to obtain an electrical wheelchair and more treatment to allow me to return to Cuba.”

As a child, Ávila was a model youth of the Castro regime. She was born in a small, self-sufficient agricultural community in the Las Tunas province, which had benefited from the agrarian reforms of the late 1950s. At the time, Ávila says, she assumed all Cubans enjoyed a life as fortunate as her own.

“It seemed like a paradise,” she said. “I went to a school in the countryside with very little technological amenities, but that was the life that folks in the countryside lived.”

Ávila’s education in communism began early. When she was 7, she joined the José Martí Pioneer Organization, the communist replacement for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts the regime founded in 1961.

Blue neckerchiefs distinguished the Pioneers, who pledged together, Ávila remembers, “to say we will be like Che Guevara, homeland or death, and support everything that the leader says.”

Then, at the age of 13, her political career began. She was appointed to her local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, part of Fidel Castro’s “collective system of revolutionary vigilance” to detect and purge anti-communist activity.

“I lived a life indoctrinated by the regime,” she said.

But Ávila began to notice the first troubling signs of corruption after the death of her father in 1989:

When my father died, the police arrived saying that he had sold the land, and had sold all the goods on the land. Then I begin to fight to prove that that’s not the case, and I was able to get evidence through a crime lab that shows that the documents that were produced by the police were false.

Ávila made repeated appeals and protests for nearly a decade. Prosecutors never reopened the case.

“At that point I began to have some questions, but I thought it was just due to local leadership, not something systemic,” Ávila said.

Shortly thereafter, in October 2004, she moved to Limones, a remote agricultural district of about 600 citizens—and the site of her future showdowns with her municipal government.

She got to know her neighbors quickly, so much so that they elected her to represent them in the municipal assembly only eight months later, in June 2005. She recalls:

The initial election is normal: People are able to nominate someone, as long as the regime doesn’t have any objections. In my case, because they thought I was a regime supporter, they broke their own rules to let me run, even though I had moved there just a short time before.

Ávila began her term with a policy agenda. Her district’s children walked over 5 miles over difficult roads to attend school; she wanted a local school built. She also wanted to improve the region’s broken and corrupt agricultural ministries, which were embezzling funds meant for local farmers.

“The farmers couldn’t sell their produce to anyone except an entity run by the ministry of agriculture,” Ávila said. “But then the ministry wasn’t picking up their crops sometimes, so they would rot.”

Hardly had she begun her work on the council, however, before she realized how little political influence the supposedly democratic body wielded.

“In theory, the provincial municipal assembly would be the ones who would be setting economic policy in the area,” she said. “The reality is that the instructions would come from on high, from higher levels of the province, and they would rubber-stamp it.”

“I wanted to debate these issues, and they didn’t want to discuss them.”

(Photo: Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation)

Sirley Ávila León and her award are surrounded June 21 by, from left, Karl Altau, managing director of the Joint Baltic American National Committee; Don Ritter, Lee Edwards, and Marion Smith of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation; and translator John Suarez., who runs the Notes from the Cuban Exile Quarter blog. (Photo: Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation)

Meeting wall after bureaucratic wall, Ávila protested agricultural corruption all the way to the Council of State in Havana.

It was not until her protests went unheard at the national level that she finally realized the harsh truth: The Castro regime was broken all the way to the top. Ávila was so frustrated that she took a decisive step. She gave an interview to Radio Martí, an American radio station that broadcasts to Cuba from Miami.

The regime moved more quickly then, publicly labelling her a “mercenary” or terrorist—a co-conspirator with Cuban-Americans in the United States.

When Ávila came up for re-election in 2012, and the people still supported her, the government simply gerrymandered her district out of existence. Officials tried to pressure her son into declaring her insane and having her committed.

“They began to poison my animals on my farm, to have thefts at my home,” she said. “Any time that I left my home, they would do something different to try to inculcate fear into me.”

“And their objective was that I wouldn’t communicate with other Cubans in my area or with the international press.”

By 2015, state security officials realized Ávila would not be intimidated out of public opposition activities. That’s when the attack occurred.

Ávila first met Osmany Carriòn in early 2015, introduced by a fellow opposition activist. Ávila hired Carriòn and his wife to help her work her farm.

Two months later, on May 24, with his wife looking on, Carriòn suddenly attacked her with a machete. But for the presence of a child and the grace of God, Ávila said, she believes he would have killed her. As it was, she was gravely injured—her hand severed, her collarbone broken, her legs and shoulder repeatedly slashed:

The neighbors immediately called emergency services, but the ambulance and the police didn’t appear for a while. … The first to appear immediately were officials of state security, and they wanted to take me to emergency services in their car. The neighbors, however, did not allow state security to take me.

When Carriòn stood trial, neither she nor her neighbors was permitted to testify. The doctors who initially treated her claimed in the trial that her wounds had not endangered her life.

Sirley Ávila León’s story is a chilling reminder that totalitarian oppression is far from over in Cuba.

“Sirley is a testament to the brutal repression Cubans live under,” Ana Quintana, a Latin America policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal.

“Cubans continue to be governed by a totalitarian communist dictatorship, one that continues to deny Cubans the most basic of civil liberties,” Quintana said. “Proponents of President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with the Cuban government fail to recognize how appeasing the Castro regime directly supports human rights violations.”

But Ávila’s story also may highlight the communist regime’s sensibility of its own waning power.

“[Ávila’s] was not a voting district in the middle of the capital city; instead, it was a small, remote municipality far from everything,” Haroldo Dilla Alfonso wrote in the opposition-minded Havana Times in 2012, three years before the machete attack.

“Only six years ago, Sirley would have been dragged to the nearest police station.”

Despite all she has been through, Ávila agrees: The system may never have been more ripe for change. And she wants to be there to see it through:

I think it’s useful to tell the Cuban people that they need to regain and relearn their history, first off. And second, to tell them not to leave their country—that it makes no sense for them to risk their lives in the open sea. If they’re going to risk their lives, better to risk them fighting for their lives in Cuba.