Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Founder of Cuba's Ladies in White leaves legacy of courage

Posted on Tuesday, 10.18.11

In My Opinion
Founder of Cuba's Ladies in White leaves legacy of courage
By Fabiola Santiago

In Miami, Havana and cities around the world where she touched hearts
and changed views on Cuba, Laura Pollán is being remembered as a woman
of exceptional courage.

She didn't possess a discursive resume or a commanding title. She was
simply a wife, a mother, and a retired professor of literature who
became one of the founders of the brave group of women in Cuba known as
Las Damas de Blanco.

Her husband's arrest propelled her into the limelight. An independent
journalist and peaceful dissident, Héctor Maseda was sentenced in 2003
to 20 years in prison for the sole crime of speaking his mind about the
lack of basic human rights on the island.

Armed only with a gladiolus stem and dressed in white as a metaphor for
the purity of her intentions, Pollán protested her husband's
incarceration and that of 74 other Cuban journalists and dissidents by
marching in silence on Sundays along Havana's Fifth Avenue, along with a
small group of women whose husbands, fathers, brothers also were
imprisoned that Black Spring of 2003.

The peaceful, silent march of the Ladies in White every Sunday became
known around the world — more so after March 17, 2010, when government
officials removed them violently from the street and their actions were
videotaped and posted on the Internet.

Constantly harassed by pro-government mobs, her hair pulled, her body
punched, her house surrounded to keep her from leaving or receiving
visitors, Pollán never wavered from her peaceful and eloquent call for
the release of Cuba's political prisoners.

She battled the violence against her and the Ladies in White with
serenity, her words measured and to the point, delivered with the
confidence of a seasoned orator.

"Our struggle is here, not in exile," she once said when asked if she
would consider leaving the island to whisk her family to safe haven

For the pro-government mobs attacking her, Pollán had a single message:
Someday the dissident might be you or a loved one of yours. When the
government no longer has use for you, she told her opponents, you too
will suffer the consequences. She encouraged those attacking her to
envision the future of their children in a free Cuba.

Pollán, 63, died Friday in a Havana hospital seven days after she sought
medical attention for shortness of breath. There's not much certainty
about the cause of death, as reports from Havana have varied and cited a
respiratory virus, dengue fever or a heart attack. One can only imagine
what she endured in a hospital run by the Cuban government, the very
people she so effectively opposed.

She wouldn't be the first dissident or prominent figure to die in
questionable circumstances, and her last days illustrate how vulnerable
Cuba's courageous dissidents truly are in a nation ruled as if it were a
private dynasty.

Pollán had made it clear she wasn't going to stop her peaceful protests
even though most of the 75 dissidents had been released from prison
through the controversial agreement negotiated last year by the Catholic
Church and the government of Spain.

"Our original mission was to liberate the 75, but we realized that they
weren't the only political prisoners and we expanded our mission to all
of the prisoners of conscience being held in Cuba," Pollán explained in
one of the many videos posted by journalists and supporters on the Internet.

Now her death, instead of dissuading others from speaking out against
injustice, is inspiring them to continue the fight for human rights and

In Miami, where thousands turned out last year to march in support of
the Ladies in White, a Mass is planned in her honor. Miami-Dade College
announced Monday that a scholarship will be named after her, to be
awarded to a student with the vocation to work on behalf of human rights.

In Havana, the Ladies in White — black, white and mixed-race women young
enough to be students, old enough to be grandmothers, and every age in
between — were a sight to behold at their peaceful march last Sunday,
this time to commemorate Pollán's life.

For the first time ever, they were joined by men as they peacefully
marched and then gathered at Pollán's house for a three-day vigil.
Maseda, now freed from prison, took his wife's place and held her

"Let the government know that we're still strong," vowed veteran Lady in
White Bertha Soler. "We will continue the struggle."

Pollán's home in the modest Centro Habana neighborhood will continue to
be the center of operations for the Ladies in White, her husband said.
On Tuesday he planned to host the customary literary tea for which
Pollán was known.

As for the founder of Las Damas de Blanco, her ashes will be scattered
in a field of flowers in her beloved homeland.

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