Cuba's 'Ladies In White' Mourn Leader's Death

Oct 17, 2011
Originally published on October 18, 2011 9:05 am

The death of one of Cuba's most prominent dissidents has come at an especially difficult time for Cuba's small opposition movement.

Laura Pollan, the founder of the Ladies in White, died last Friday at age 63.

Her group carries out the only officially tolerated act of public protest in Cuba. It happens on Sundays, when the Ladies in White gather for mass at the Santa Rita church in Havana.

After a prayer, a few dozen of the women walk out and march in silence along Havana's busy Fifth Avenue, dressed in white and carrying red gladiolas. This Sunday was the first time they were not led by Pollan, a former schoolteacher who became a fearless activist after her husband was jailed in a 2003 crackdown with 74 other dissidents.

Pollan organized the prisoners' wives and loved ones into a potent symbol of peaceful opposition, often enduring physical and verbal abuse from government-organized mobs.

"Long live Laura Pollan," the women chanted Sunday after their march, the first time they were also joined by men. At the head of the group was Hector Maseda, Pollan's husband, carrying her portrait. He was freed this spring after eight years in prison.

"The toll on our private lives has been that after eight years of forced separation, we didn't even get eight months together," Maseda said, his eyes welling up. "So I had one month of happiness for every year of separation."

Maseda was one of more than 100 prisoners freed by the Cuban government after leaders of the Catholic Church intervened last year to stop attacks on the Ladies in White. The prisoners' release has left the group struggling to broaden its message beyond freedom for jailed dissidents, while facing new arrests and other reprisals in cities outside Havana.

Sunday's march was the first time in memory that men have participated in any act of public protest without government interference. But the women said it was a one-time event to honor Pollan.

"I'm just one more ordinary Cuban," said Silberio Portal Contreras, one of about 50 men who marched. "And if we don't have the right to express ourselves, I'm going to stand as a man and a gentleman and say what I want."

The leadership of the Ladies in White now falls to Berta Soler, who co-founded the group, which the Cuban government depicts as a tool of Washington and the anti-Castro exiles who back the women. Even though most of Cuba's internationally recognized political prisoners are now free, Soler said the Ladies aren't going away.

"The Ladies are going to continue this struggle," Soler said. "My husband is out of jail now but there are other women who have joined us whose husbands are still behind bars, and we can't just give up on them."

As usual, ordinary Cubans appeared indifferent to Sunday's march. A few passing cars honked, but no one spontaneously joined in. Despite the support for her abroad and a statement from the White House honoring her, surveys have found that few Cubans seemed to know of Pollan when she was alive. Her death wasn't mentioned in Cuba's state-run media.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Finally this hour, to Cuba, where the leader of the island's most prominent dissident group has died. Laura Pollan was the founder of the Ladies in White. She had been ill and she died Friday at the age of 63. Her loss comes at an especially difficult time for Cuba's small opposition movement, as Nick Miroff reports from Havana.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: The only officially tolerated act of public protest in Cuba occurs on Sundays after the Ladies in White gather for mass at the Santa Rita Church in Havana.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE PRAYING TOGETHER)

MIROFF: After a prayer, a few dozen of the women walk out and march in silence along Havana's busy 5th Avenue dressed in white and carrying red gladiolas. This Sunday was the first time they were not led by Laura Pollan, a former school teacher who became a fearless activist after her husband was jailed in the 2003 crackdown with 74 other dissidents.

Pollan organized the prisoners' wives and loved ones into a potent symbol of peaceful opposition, often enduring physical and verbal abuse from government organized mobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

MIROFF: Laura Pollan lived, the women chanted Sunday after their march, the first time they were also joined by men. At the head of the group was Hector Maseda, Pollan's husband, carrying her portrait. He was freed this spring after nearly eight years in prison.

HECTOR MASEDA: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: The toll on our private lives has been that, after almost eight years of forced separation, we didn't even get eight months together, said Maseda, his eyes welling up. So, I had one month of happiness for every year of separation, he said.

Maseda was one of more than 100 prisoners freed by the Cuban government after church leaders intervened last year to stop attacks on the Ladies in White. The prisoners' release has left the group struggling to broaden its message beyond freedom for jail dissidents while facing new arrests and other reprisals in cities outside Havana.

Sunday's march was the first time in memory that men have participated in any act of public protest in Cuba without government interference. But the women said it was a one time event to honor Pollan. Silberio Portal Contreras was one of about 50 men who marched.

SILBERIO PORTAL CONTRERAS: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: I'm just one more ordinary Cuban, Portal said. And if we don't have the right to express ourselves, I'm going to stand up as a man and as a gentleman and say what I want.

The leadership of the Ladies in White now falls to Berta Soler, co-founder of the group, which the Cuban government depicts as a tool of Washington and the anti-Castro exiles who back the women. Even though most of Cuba's internationally recognized political prisoners are now free, Soler said the ladies aren't going away.

BERTA SOLER: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: The Ladies in White will continue this struggle, Soler said. My husband is out of jail now, but there are other women who have joined us whose husbands are still behind bars and we can't just give up on them, she said.

As usual, ordinary Cubans appeared indifferent to Sunday's march. A few passing cars honked, but no one spontaneously joined in. Despite her support abroad and a statement from the White House honoring her, surveys have found that few Cubans seem to know who Pollan was when she was alive. Her death wasn't mentioned in Cuba's state-run media.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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