Ladies in White
Mary Anastasia O'Grady,
Street Journal. December 17, 2005.
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
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
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
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
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.