Ladies in White
By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
December 17, 2005; Page A10
When Fidel Castro ordered the lockup of 75 journalists, librarians and democracy advocates in March 2003, he made a calculation that, despite an outcry from abroad at the time, his captives, sentenced to prison terms as long as 28 years, would soon enough be forgotten.
International silence has been Fidel's best friend over five decades of state terror. At home he counted on the manner of the 2003 crackdown -- a terrifying wave of jackboot repression -- to weaken his critics, who were growing far too brazen for his taste.
What he didn't anticipate was the bravery and persistence of the Ladies in White -- a band composed of mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of his prisoners -- and the voice they would find, both at home and abroad, without weapons or resources.
This week, Cuba's Ladies in White were awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize honoring freedom of thought, making them the international symbol of the Cuban cry for help. They share the prize with Reporters Without Borders, which fights for press freedom around the world, and Hauwa Ibrahim, a Nigerian human-rights advocate. Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, who won the Sakharov Prize in 2002, summed up the accomplishment of the women: "They have publicly denied the fear of repression that is felt by so many."
The group's impact may be a surprise even to its founders, who two weeks after the 2003 arrests began gathering on Sundays at St. Rita's in Havana to pray for their jailed loved ones. Several weeks later they started a ritual procession after each Sunday Mass. Silent and solemn in their simple white garb, they marched 10 blocks from the church to a nearby park. Their show of resistance impressed a people who were conditioned to cower. Their ranks grew. They now number about 30 on a regular basis, but on special occasions such as Mother's Day, the group can swell. Reports from the island say that as many as 100 have joined in.
The regime struggles to stifle ideas and information flow. But when it came to the Ladies in White, Fidel was thwarted. Word spread quickly from Havana and soon the practice was copied in other provinces, with groups of women in white meeting to pray and march in the street as a protest against the unjust imprisonment of family members.
Even in a year marked by crackdowns designed to reduce dissent, protests increased. Miami's Democratic Cuban Directorate, which monitors the island's democracy movement, reports that in 2003 the number of documented civic actions jumped to 1,328 from 929 in 2002. These are big numbers in a totalitarian state where dank prisons, unemployment, expulsion from schools, the use of civilian enforcement squads and even denying food rations are common techniques to punish dissent.
Five of the Ladies in White received the prize on behalf of the group. They are Laura Pollán, the wife of Hector Maseda, serving a 20-year sentence; Miriam Leiva, the wife of Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who has been conditionally released due to a serious illness; Berta Soler, the wife of Angel Moya Acosta, also serving 20 years; Loida Valdes, the wife of Alfredo Felipe Fuentes, who got 26 years; Julia Núñez, the wife of Adolfo Fernández Saínz, who is in for 15 years.
Ms. Pollán, who is the designated leader of the group, told me yesterday by telephone from Havana that it is important for the world to understand that the women are "not political." Rather, she insists, "we are women who want the unification of our families and we want an end to the pain and suffering. They are innocent men and their imprisonment is double punishment. It is the punishment of them but it is also the punishment of our families." The women are also protesting the lack of medical attention for sick prisoners, prison conditions that include regular beatings, and the fact that the government strategically places prisoners in jails far from their homes so that family visits are nearly impossible.
I asked Ms. Pollán, pictured nearby, if the imprisoned men knew of the prize. She said that some of them do and that "they are very happy and very proud." But some of them have no information because they have not been able to receive visitors since the prize was announced.
The wife of former prisoner and Cuban poet Raul Rivero, Blanca Reyes, who was a co-founder of the Ladies in White and now lives in Europe, had this to say about the prisoners: "They are men of various ages who have tried in a peaceful manner to take freedom, pluralism and peace to the country of our birth. None have committed a single crime. They are human beings that dream to live in a country where we can express freely our opinions and where one can work with dignity so as to provide, with decency, to their families."
Castro refused to permit the ladies to travel to Strasbourg to accept their prize. European Parliament speaker Josep Borell, a Spanish Socialist, denounced that decision, calling it "lamentable and deplorable." Sure, but not surprising. Fidel now shares a special distinction with the apartheid government of South Africa, which similarly denied the first winner of the Sakharov Prize, Nelson Mandela, permission to travel for the awards ceremony.
If Fidel thought he could put dissent in solitary confinement and be done with it, the Ladies in White have proven otherwise.