Sunday, April 25, 2010

United by pain, Cuba's Ladies in White vow to keep marching

Posted on Saturday, 04.24.10

United by pain, Cuba's Ladies in White vow to keep marching
Raúl Castro has clearly had enough of the Ladies in White, who have
grown from a handful of protesters into a symbol of the Cuban dissident

The women met each other in Villa Marista, tenebrous headquarters of
Cuba's political police, while visiting some of the 74 husbands, sons
and fathers arrested in a 2003 crackdown on dissent.

``We didn't know each other because most of us were not dissidents, just
wives, mothers, daughters,'' recalled Berta Soler. ``But we started to
chat, and to organize, and we became the Ladies in White.''

They sought support and publicity in a Havana church frequented by
foreign diplomats. And they marched on the streets, at first
tentatively, then daringly to the very symbols of the regime that
sentenced their men to up to 28 years in prison.

More importantly, they became the only group that regularly staged
street protests in Cuba, giving their persistent demands for the freedom
of their men and all other political prisoners a level of visibility
rare in communist Cuba.

Today, the Ladies in White have become icons of the Cuban dissident
movement, condemned by the Raúl Castro government and little known in
their country but praised around the world, defended by Cuba's often
timid Catholic church and even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

``To win the streets is the basic issue for the dissidents, and no other
group has won that space,'' said Cuban sociologist Haroldo Dilla. ``They
are so vulnerable and fragile that they are difficult to repress.''

State security officials blocked the women's marches the last two
Sundays, a clear sign Castro has had enough of their very public
activism. The officials have warned the women that if they insist on
marching, police may not be able to ``protect'' them from the
government-organized mobs of civilians that regularly harass them.

But the women have vowed to keep at it, and will try to march again
today (Sunday) as is their custom after attending the 10:30 a.m. Mass at
the Santa Rita church, wearing white clotes and carrying pink gladioluses.

``We will continue to try to march every Sunday,'' said Soler, whose
husband Angel Moya Acosta is serving a 20-year sentence. ``For the
freedom of our men, we will continue going into the streets.''

``This will be a struggle of resistance, for which we are prepared,''
declared group spokeswoman Laura Pollán. ``If there's something that we
have, it is patience, perseverance and resistance. We have shown that
through seven years of peaceful struggle.''

Cuba's government has certainly tried to stop the women in many ways
since 2003.

Most of their marches are harassed by government-run mobs that hurl
insults at them -- including ``paredón!,'' slang for a firing squad --
and sometimes hit them on their backs, pinch their arms and stomp on
their feet, the women say. Security forces broke up several of the
protests by dragging them into buses and driving them away.

State security officials also regularly threaten the women and their
jailed relatives with worse prison conditions if the women continue
their protests, said Soler, and can delay or block prison visits and
deliveries of food and other supplies.

Many of the Ladies in White suspect the government has infiltrated
snitches in their midst, and Pollán found a microphone in a wall socket
in her home three years ago.

Virtually all are unemployed, most of them fired from their jobs in a
country where the government controls 95 percent of all economic
activity. Others resigned because of the withering pressures.

Soler, a microbiologist at a maternity hospital, quit out of fear she
would be blamed for a death. ``I had to keep my eyes wide open all the
time, to make sure I would not be framed for something,'' she told El
Nuevo Herald by telephone from Havana.

Cuban officials also have put pressures on the Ladies in White's
children, other relatives, friends and neighbors, the women say.

Gisela Delgado, whose husband Hector Palacios was sentenced to 25 years
but was freed in 2006 for health reasons, said their daughter Giselle
was expelled from the University of Havana because of her parents' activism.

Yolanda Huerta said her 9-year old son was given a psychological test in
school to determine ``whether he had been imbued with his father's
ideas.'' Her husband, Manuel Vasquez Portal, was freed in 2004 and the
family now lives in Miami.

Delgado said state security agents also have tried to set the prisoners'
mothers against the wives, and to recruit boyfriends and girlfriends of
the older children to spy on the families.

``This is psychological torture against our families. This is state
terrorism,'' she said via telephone from Havana.

Police also have told neighbors that the jailed men were convicted
killers, said Soler. Her son Luis Angel, now 15, got into a fight in
primary school with another kid who called his father a murderer and
``now he's marked as a troublemaker'' in school records, she added.

``To be the child of a dissident in Cuba is worse than being the child
of a thief,'' said Maria Elena Alpizar, an independent journalist in
Cuba who wrote often about the Ladies in White and now lives in Miami.

Cuba brands the women, like other dissidents, as ``mercenaries'' paid
from abroad to criticize the government. In 2008, it made public a
receipt signed by Pollán for $2,400 to be distributed to nine women over
two months -- $133 per woman per month. The government alleged the funds
came from a Miami group with links to a supporter of anti-Castro
militant Luis Posada Carriles.

The women don't deny that some of them receive money from a number of
individuals and groups abroad -- including the plantados, a group of
former political prisoners in Miami -- but they angrily deny the
allegation of being ``mercenaries.''

``First, nobody pays us to defend democracy and human rights,'' Delgado
said. ``This aid comes primarily because all the women are unemployed,
and it's a minimum for maintaining the family and delivering some food
and other things to men in prisons that are not like those in other
countries, where they have a proper diet.''

A bag with a month's supply of canned and dried foods, soap, toothpaste
and maybe some towels runs anywhere from $100 to $140, the women say.

``More important than the dollar value of the aid is the support that
one feels, that one is not totally unprotected, that there are people
who worry about you,'' Alpizar added.

The Ladies in White clearly remain little known inside Cuba, where the
government-controlled domestic news outlets seldom mention them. But if
history is any guide, the women will manage to persevere.

They first met at Villa Marista, where many of the 74 male dissidents
were detained after the 2003 crackdown known as Cuba's Black Spring.
Another jailed dissident was Martha Beatriz Roque.

Only three or four were already activists, said Blanca Reyes, a member
until her husband, journalist Raul Rivero, was freed in 2004 and they
left for Spain. She now represents the group in Europe.

The women started talking about staging some sort of protest to demand
the release of their men, and learned there was already a group of
mothers of pre-2003 political prisoners -- the Leonor Perez Mothers'
Committee, named after the mother of independence hero José Martí -- who
wore white in summer and black in winter for their activities.

They regularly attended the Sunday masses at the Santa Rita church on
Fifth Avenue. But the mothers' group never tried to march down the streets.

A handful of relatives of the 74 dissidents first turned up at the
church March 30, 2003, dressed in white, Alpizar said. The headline on
one her dispatches, posted on the Internet May 28 under the pseudonym
``10,'' gave the group its name, Las Damas de Blanco.

``We started just standing at the church door after Mass'' to buttonhole
the diplomats and plead their case, Reyes recalled. ``Then we started
reciting the Ave Maria. Then we started walking, then walking a bit
further, and so on.''

``We were so close, I can't even remember who first said, `let's march,'
'' she said by telephone from Madrid.

The initial marches generally stayed close to the church. But on March
19, 2004, 17 of the women marched to the government agency that runs
prisons and the national legislature to hand over petitions for the
release of all political prisoners.

And on Feb. 18, 2005, in their most daring sally, the women delivered a
similar petition to the ruling Council of State on Revolution Plaza --
the iconic meeting place for Castro and his followers.

``No matter what the government has done or will do, we will continue
trying to march, trying to demand liberty for our dear relatives,''
Soler said last week. ``We will never give up, because what unites us is
our pain.''

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