Three Hours with the Ladies in White

Ladies in White leaving Laura’s house on March 25, 2010.

I arrived just after 4 o’clock in the afternoon at the house of Laura Pollán Toledo, right in the middle of Cuba’s capital at 963 Neptuno Street. Pollán, is the wife of the prisoner of conscience Héctor Maseda, one of the 75 peaceful dissidents jailed by Fidel Castro’s government during what has come to be known as  the “Black Spring of 2003.”

Laura’s small hot living room is packed.  “Today, we have planned a march,” she announces in a soft voice.  Where?  “We always let everyone know while we are marching,” Laura says. Generally, that is the only security measure they take in order to prevent the political police from foiling their planned marches.

“We know that the phones are tapped and that there may be some infiltrators in our group. It is a rule that we follow to protect ourselves and it has worked,” stresses Pollán in the midst of coming and goings in her small kitchen, while she makes coffee and tea for 24 relaxed ladies talking and laughing while waiting for “zero hour.”

Ladies in White, at Laura’s house, waiting for the moment to take to the streets.

Laura is the spokesperson and leader of the Ladies in White, winners of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded by the European Parliament in 2005. They are more than 70 women, counting amongst them relatives of those incarcerated and supporters of the group. Almost none had been previously involved in anti-government activities. None were dissidents.

Pollán Toledo was professor of Literature and Spanish. Others worked at factories and offices or simply stayed home. Their biggest headache, just as with all other Cuban women, was to prepare two hot plates of food each day and to take care of their husbands and children.

At Laura’s house waiting to leave for the march.

If anything pushed them toward government opposition and public protests, it was the government of Fidel Castro. And they do not regret it. They have their children, husbands, fathers, brothers behind bars, serving long sentences… “We will not stop until they release all of the prisoners of conscience,” stressed Pollán, a short, slightly overweight blond.

The previous week they had put the regime in a tough spot, after a series of six marches to churches located in different municipalities of the city of Havana.

“The march of Wednesday the 18th was the most violent one, marchers were pushed and beaten. During the other marches they offended us but we were not physically attacked,” observed José Alberto Alvarez, a 56-year-old independent news reporter who, together with Serpa Maceira, who is 43, serve as spoke-persons for the group of the group of women who dress in white.

Laura Pollán’s home is a headquarters of sorts.  In the afternoon of March 25, everyone milled casually around the narrow home.  They talked about the latest political happenings, about their husbands and children or the current soap opera on TV.

Laura was giving an interview on the phone. Today, March 25, a march organized in support of the Ladies in White by the Cuban-American singer, Gloria Estefan, is taking place in Miami, and the phone lines have not stopped ringing.

Around six in the afternoon, several women began handing out gladioli and a nylon bags with a white dove inside. “Be careful not to let them fly away,” a smiling Laura warns. Some foreign correspondents and independent news reporters asked what was going on. Mischievously peering out from her intense blue eyes, Pollán tells them: “Follow us and find out.”

Before heading out for one of their now habitual marches through the city, Laura Pollán rallies them and warns them.  “We are going to release the doves at one place and then we will stop at another and we will shout for Freedom. The purpose of this march is to support the march that our compatriots in Miami are carrying out. Remember, do not allow them to provoke us.”

Everyone agrees and they leave in silence. They look like ghostly figures dressed in their white clothes. As soon as they set foot on the street, an accelerated operation on behalf of State Security is unleashed. Right in front of Laura’s house there is a surveillance camera recording everyone who enters or leaves the house.

In no time at all, while the Ladies walk through Neptuno Street, several men, cell phones in hand, organize the usual government ordered counter-march against the ladies who demand freedom for their loved ones.

The destination is the Malecón, by the side of the Maceo Park.  There they free 24 doves.  They then walk about 400 meters along the Malecón and very close to the back patio of the Hotel Nacional. Holding their gladioli high, they begin to shout “Freedom, Freedom…”

Ladies in White by the Malecón. Photos taken March 25, 2010.

By this time, the police have finished organizing their shindig. Two public buses filled with police officers park near them, as well as numerous police cars and the motorcycles of State Security. Even an ambulance.

The hostile presence of the government can be felt next to the foreign correspondents whom the government tries to intimidate, by taking their photographs and filming them.

As soon as the Ladies in White begin to chant Freedom, suddenly, like a typhoon, a group of about forty people show up shouting insults: “sell-outs, traitors, mercenaries.”

The two groups are so close to each other that it looks like a brawl is about to explode. But nothing happens.  The group called together by the government just tries to counteract the Ladies’ call for freedom.

Passersby stare at these marches with surprise, and more than a few with admiration.

Occasional tourists snap pictures. Many in Havana have already become used to the marches of The Ladies in White.

In 51 years of strong-man revolution, acts of public street criticism against the government have been non-existent.

Today, in this Spring of 2010, the women who demand freedom for their loved ones, have turned public criticism into an important weapon for peaceful protests. A stamp from home.

Text and photographs: Iván García

Translated by: Ondina Felipe and Raul G.