Cuba's Ladies in White vow to march on
Despite a government promise to meet their demand to release jailed
dissidents, Cuba's Ladies in White say their protests will continue
until all political prisoners are free.
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
Their numbers are dwindling, and there's even a call for Cuba's Ladies
in White to disband now that the government has promised to release the
jailed dissidents whose freedom they demanded.
Yet the group's leaders are vowing that they will continue marching
through Havana's streets on Sundays until all Cuban political prisoners
are freed. And they are urging relatives of other prisoners to join them.
``The road is the liberation of all peaceful political prisoners. That's
the road, and it has to be followed,'' said spokeswoman Berta Soler, who
estimated 50 to 60 will remain in prison after the 52 whose release they
had sought are freed.
``We are calling on the relatives of the rest to come with us and march.
And we will welcome any other women who want to march with us and demand
liberty for the men,'' Soler added Monday.
``Our voices, our marches, our legs, will not stop as long as there's a
single peaceful political prisoner,'' added Laura Pollán, another Ladies
in White leader. They spoke by phone from Havana.
Another eight jailed dissidents were to be freed and flown to Spain
Monday, bringing to 19 the number of prisoners released by the Raúl
Castro government as part of his promise to free the 52 over four months.
News reports from Spain identified them as Manuel Ubals González,
Ricardo Enrique Silva Gual, Alfredo Manuel Pulido López, Blasgiraldo
Reyes Rodríguez, Jorge Luis González Tanquero, José Ubaldo Izquierdo
Hernández, Arturo Pérez de Alejo Rodríguez and Antonio Ramón Díaz
Sánchez. They were accompanied by 38 relatives.
The U.S. Interests Section in Havana, meanwhile, invited relatives of
dissidents still in jail to visit the mission starting Tuesday if the
dissidents want to learn the procedure for applying for permits to move
to the United States once they are freed.
Among those invited were relatives of prisoners who have said they would
not go to Spain if freed, as well as those who have not been asked
whether they would leave for Madrid. The offer did not appear to imply
any change in the U.S. position of supporting Cuban dissidents.
The release so far of 19 political prisoners and promise to free 33
others -- all from the group of 75 dissidents jailed in a 2003 crackdown
-- has raised questions about the future of the Ladies in White, founded
by female relatives of the 75.
Already in Spain with the released prisoners are six of the 30 to 40
women who most often dress in white and march down Havana streets after
Sunday Mass at the Santa Rita church. Their marches are the only
regularly scheduled opposition protests allowed by Cuba.
Last Sunday nine Ladies in White marched -- about average in recent
weekes -- and they were accompanied by 19 other women, both relatives of
political prisoners not among the 75 and so-called ``Ladies in Support''
who have no jailed relatives but support those who do.
About 50 women also attended the Ladies in White's lastest Saturday
``literary tea'' at Soler's house and exchanged news of their jailed
relatives and supporters abroad.
But differences between group members, which began appearing in May,
seem to have grown as Castro, the church and the Spanish government
moved forward with talks that led to the promise to free the 52.
``After the release of our prisoners, there should be a statement
dismantling the organization,'' Oleivys García, the wife of independent
journalist Pablo Pacheco, told Spain's El Mundo newspaper after their
arrival in Madrid. ``If other movements are to emerge from there, the
name should be changed to ladies in black, blue or brown.''
García ``is a Lady in White in name only,'' Soler retorted. García lived
in the central province of Ciego de Avila , she added, ``and never or
almost never came to Havana to fight for the prisoners.''
Since the Ladies in White began their marches in 2004, Cuban government
officials have repeatedly warned them that if they kept it up, their
relatives would stay in jail longer.
In May, church officials told the women that the government wanted them
to distance themselves from the Ladies in Support if they wanted
progress in the talks between the church and Castro.
Thirty-five female relatives signed a letter dated May 31 thanking the
Ladies in Support but urging them to stop attending the Sunday marches
for five weeks as a ``sign of flexibility and contribution to the
fundamental objective of the Ladies in White, to win the immediate and
unconditional release'' of those still jailed since 2003.
Soler, Pollán and other leaders rejected the request and continued their
marches, along with the support women. Soon after, the government called
off the government-organized mobs that had viciously harassed them after
``We stood firm when the government wanted us to distance from the
Ladies in Support, and we'll stand firm now,'' Soler said. ``The Ladies
in White will not disappear.''