Saturday, October 15, 2011

Cuba's Ladies in White mourn leader, vow to go on

Cuba's Ladies in White mourn leader, vow to go on

The Ladies in White, a group made up of family members of imprisoned
dissidents, stand around the coffin of Laura Pollan at a funeral home in
Havana October 14, 2011. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa

By Nelson Acosta

HAVANA | Sat Oct 15, 2011 5:24pm EDT

(Reuters) - Late "Ladies in White" leader Laura Pollan was remembered on
Saturday with a simple altar in her home in the crumbling Central Havana
neighborhood and vows that the dissident group she founded would go on.

A blue vase holding the ashes of Pollan, who died on Friday after a
brief illness, sat on a small table with several photos of her and
flowers brought by friends who included diplomats.

Some of Cuba's most prominent dissidents attended the wake, where they
grieved for the former school teacher who became one of Cuba's top
opposition voices as she led the Ladies in White with a fearless
defiance of the Cuban government.

In contrast to other turbulent moments when her group was harassed by
pro-government mobs, the streets outside her home were quiet, with life
going on as usual.

Leaders of the communist island have said nothing about her death, but
in Washington White House Press Secretary Jay Carney praised Pollan and
her group for having "courageously voiced the core desire of the Cuban
people and of people everywhere to live in liberty."

"Since the beginning of the (Obama) administration we have worked to
reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire to freely
determine their future and Cuba's future. We will continue that work in
Pollan's memory," he said.

Pollan led the founding of the Ladies in White after 75 dissidents,
including her husband Hector Maseda, were imprisoned in a March 2003
government crackdown known as Havana's Black Spring.

Dressed in white and each carrying a single white flower, the women
defied government pressure by staging silent marches every Sunday on one
of Havana's main avenues demanding the release of their loved ones. At
the end of each march, they shouted in unison "libertad," or freedom.

Public protests were unheard of at the time and remain a rarity today in
tightly controlled Cuba, where the government views dissidents as
mercenaries for the United States, its longtime enemy that works closely
with dissidents to promote political change.


Last year, after international condemnation for the death of an
imprisoned dissident who staged a long hunger strike, President Raul
Castro relented and released 115 political prisoners, including those
from the 2003 crackdown, in a deal brokered by the Catholic Church.

The Ladies in White, saying Cuba still has political prisoners, have
continued their marches and will do so again this Sunday and into the
future, said Berta Soler, Pollan's longtime co-leader of the group.

"We're going to continue our peaceful fight for the liberation of all
political prisoners. We'll also continue defending the human rights of
the Cuban people," vowed Soler, speaking in the hushed, grief-stricken
ambience of Pollan's wake.

"We plan to march tomorrow on Fifth Avenue like we do every Sunday. It
will be a special march for Laura," she said.

Pollan's husband, Hector Maseda, told the women they must not stop,
despite the loss of his wife.

"You have to keep going as you have until now, with intelligence, not
accepting provocations. You have become a dagger in the middle of the
heart of the government," he said.

Despite the vows to go on, Pollan will not be easy to replace.

Under her leadership, the Ladies in White were awarded the 2005 Sakharov
award for human rights from the European Parliament, named for late
Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov, and have been considered candidates
for the Nobel Peace Prize.

"She was a person who gave her life over to fighting for the fundamental
cause of human rights. (Her death) has been an irreparable loss," said
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission of Human Rights.

Pollan died of cardiac arrest in a Havana hospital where she had been
treated since October 7 for a pulmonary illness.

Some of her supporters had raised questions about whether she had
received good medical care in Cuba's state-run medical system, but
Maseda praised the medical team attending her and said "they tried to
save my wife' life until the last minute."

Maseda said some of her ashes would be placed in a crypt in her hometown
of Manzanillo in the southeastern province of Granma and others
scattered in a field of flowers, as she had once requested.

(Writing by Jeff Franks; editing by xxx)

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