The Ladies in White: Cuba's shame
by Achy Obejas | Oct. 20, 2011
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 60 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
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
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 a victory of light,
but a victory at the very cost of a fellow Cuban's life?
For shame, compañeros, for shame.