The Ladies in White: Cuba's shame

The Ladies in White: Cuba's shame
Laura Pollan, leader of the dissident group Ladies in White reacts as Government supporters demonstrate outside her house in Havana on Friday March 18, 2011 AP/Javier Galeano
The Ladies in White: Cuba's shame
Laura Pollan, leader of the dissident group Ladies in White reacts as Government supporters demonstrate outside her house in Havana on Friday March 18, 2011 AP/Javier Galeano

The Ladies in White: Cuba's shame

I remember a time when the only reaction the Ladies in White would get in their native Havana was discomfort and shame. Back in 2004 or so, those early years, when they were just a fistful of women, a silent handful with their orange flowers staining their stark presence down Fifth Avenue or, sometimes, the Malecón, the city’s seaside boulevard.

I was in Havana then, living there in a way, in and out of the country but present enough to have routines, rituals. And I remember well my friends’ faces when those women would suddenly appear, like ghosts, on the rim of the seawalk ... We all did the same thing -- myself included. We’d turn away, dismayed, uncomfortable and ashamed.

Only later, maybe, privately, we might exhale a little loudly, give a knowing look, say, “De madre ...”, shake our heads.

The Ladies in White came about after what’s referred to as Cuba’s Black Spring, those months in 2003, when state security agents descended on dissidents like a series of flash floods. We’d hear the racket in the neighborhood in the wee hours, get up, sneak a peek out the door and see the street blocked; somebody’s house was getting sacked.

Eventually, the government condemned 75 men and women to sentences that went up to 30 some years, the evidence against them technologies such as computers and cells that weren’t legal on the island then, payments from abroad for articles and interviews, the eyewitness reports of men they’d thought were comrades in arms and turned out to be government spies embedded in their midst.

One of the condemned men was Hector Maseda, an independent journalist and leader of the unofficial and thus illegal Cuban Liberal Party. His wife was an apolitical math teacher and housewife named Laura Pollan: blue-eyed, round-faced, roly poly.

After her husband’s sentence, Pollan began to meet the other jailed dissidents’ wives, daughters, and sisters and inviting them to her home in Centro Habana, a neighborhood in ruins where few tourists go. On Tuesdays, they’d meet for a “tea hour” and talk about their missing kin, read letters, let off steam. Eventually, the idea came to walk the streets to church on Sundays and silently ask for redress, for their family members to be freed from these sentences that, under almost any measure, were excessive.

The effect of those silent women in white was extraordinary. Few, very few Cubans I know -- even those in government, even those who say they’d die for the Revolution -- ever believed those sentences were proper. And those women were like tugs on our consciences, a dare to be speak up, to be brave.

Most of my friends failed (most, not all), and I surely failed. I had a million opportunities to visit but didn’t. A million chances to join the line of women in the sun, but didn’t.

The reasons? Simple selfishness, a desire to protect my own interests, and fear. Not fear of imprisonment but fear of expulsion, of losing my way in, which was -- and is -- vital to me.

Eventually, the Ladies in White managed to get early releases for their family members, thanks to a deal brokered by Cuba’s Catholic archdiocese with the Spanish and Cuban governments. Most of the freed men chose to leave the island, to settle in Spain and the U.S. as part of the arrangement.

But Maseda and Pollan chose to stay in Cuba. This, in spite of the fact that it had been years now since the government had opted to stop ignoring the Ladies and to send out gangs of thugs to harass them, beat them up and make their lives miserable. State security would routinely show up, mostly to supervise the pillorying, never detaining anyone but the Ladies themselves, who’d they’d claim to be protecting from the crowd’s anger, and then release them in a matter of hours.

One Sunday, Pollan withstood hours of screaming in her face without saying a word, stuck in a park and unable to get home. Less than a month ago, state security blocked Pollan’s street, filled it with government supporters and blocked her door, making it impossible for the Ladies to attend a mass for the patron saint of prisoners.

Last Friday, Laura Pollan died in a Cuban government hospital. Her health hadn’t been great: she was diabetic, had high blood pressure, her nerves were shot. Later it was reported she had Dengue, a virus.

And this has brought another shame: After more than 50 years of Revolution, of living and breathing socialist ideas, of singing about humanity, about love of country -- this is how the Revolution treats its stray children? Because the Ladies in White, whatever their ideas, are pure products of this Revolution: educated in Cuba, raised in Cuba, culturally and spiritually Cuban, surrounded in Cuba by the same fever of Revolution as those who seek to erase them.

And this is the response to their challenge -- not an engagement with ideas, not a defense of ideas, but a battery of metal and muscle, of screams and epithets? This is the response -- not a victory of light, but a victory at the very cost of a fellow Cuban’s life?

For shame, compañeros, for shame.