By Jeff Franks
HAVANA | Mon Oct 17, 2011 10:50am IST
(Reuters) - The dissident group Ladies in White sent a message of
defiance to the Cuban government on Sunday, having men join them for
their weekly protest march and vowing to go on despite the death of
leader Laura Pollan.
The group allowed men to march with them for the first time since
forming in 2003 to honor them for their support of the group and of
Pollan, who died after a brief illness on Friday at the age of 63.
More than 100 men and women, the latter dressed in white and wearing
black ribbons of mourning, walked along Havana's Fifth Avenue in
silence, as the Ladies in White have done every Sunday for more than
At the end of the 25-minute march they shouted "Laura Pollan lives"
instead of their usual "Freedom." As happens most of the time, passing
Cubans took little notice of the march.
It was believed to be the first time in decades men had taken part in a
public protest in Cuba, without the intervention of police and state
security agents, none of whom were visibly present.
Berta Soler, Pollan's long-time co-leader, said it was the only time men
would join the women in their marches, which will go on as always.
"It's a very difficult moment but a moment in which we cannot weaken,"
she said. "Laura Pollan is with us spiritually and will march with us
today and forever."
"Let the Cuban government see that we are strong and we are going to
continue this fight for freedom of political prisoners but also defend
human rights," she said to the women, some of whom wept softly.
Pollan led the founding of the Ladies in White to demand freedom for her
husband and 74 other dissidents after they were imprisoned in a March
2003 government crackdown.
They began their weekly marches in a time when public protests were
non-existent in tightly controlled Cuba and are still very rare.
The government tried to shut the marches down but never figured out an
internationally acceptable way to do it and allowed them to go on, under
Cuban leaders view dissidents as being in the pay of the United States,
their longtime enemy.
The defiant Pollan became one of Cuba's leading opposition voices and
was deeply involved in the dissident movement until she developed
pulmonary illness and died at a Havana hospital, in a blow to Cuba's
small dissident community.
Her husband, Hector Maseda, and the others jailed in 2003 have been
released from prison, with most going free after President Raul Castro
agreed to free them in deal brokered by the Catholic Church last year.
Maseda took part in Sunday's march, carrying a photo of Pollan in a past
protest, with the words "Laura Pollan Toledo...present."
He said he would allow the Ladies in White to continue using the home he
shared with Pollan in Havana's Central Havana neighborhood as their
(Editing by Bill Trott)