The Repression Obama Did Not See in Havana / Iván García

Some 46 Ladies in White who on Sunday, March 20th, were removed by force from Gandhi Park and subsequently arrested by members of the Ministry of the Interior in uniform and plainclothes. (Source: Nuevo Herald)
Some 46 Ladies in White who on Sunday, March 20th, were removed by force from Gandhi Park and subsequently arrested by members of the Ministry of the Interior in uniform and plainclothes. (Source: Nuevo Herald)

Ivan Garcia, 22 March 2016 — Just when Air Force One landed at 2 pm at the Andrew military base on the way to Havana, forty-six Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) walked in file along the central promenade of 5th Avenue, with photos, placards with slogan against the autocracy, and photos of political prisoners.

Starting eleven months ago, every Sunday, these women take part in a march which always ends in blows, detentions and insults between Castro supporters, and the opposition.

Nearly thirty foreign journalists, accredited to cover Obama’s visit, arrived at the Santa Rita church to see what would be the olive green regime’s strategy in relation to the resolute Ladies in White.

But, let’s take a look back. After midday on Saturday 19th, Yamilé Garro, a member of the group led by Berta Soler, was in the kitchen, in he group´s base in the Lawton district, a half hour from central Havana by car, two pans of white rice, hot dogs and peeling different things to eat for lunch.

In the living room, spread around among three easy chairs, various women were watching the television. In the hallway some others were playing dominos or simply chatting. You wouldn´t notice the tension in the group. They were hiding it.

When night fell, Victoria Macchi, an Argentinian journalist working for the VOA (Voice of America News). and I decided to stay and spend the night with the women in their redoubt in the south of Havana.

Ángel Moya, Berta Soler´s husband, has been an opponent of the Castro regime for twenty years. He has visited prisons, more often than he would have wanted to, In Oriundo de Jovellanos, an area in Matanzas province east of Havana.

When, along with another seventy-four dissidents and independent journalists, he was sentenced to many years in jail in the spring of 2003 by the autocrat Fidel Castro, his punishment laid the way for women, who were housewives, professionals or workers, to create the Ladies in White.

Apart from their differences of points of view, that group symbolises resistance in a society which does not respect political freedom and which confuses democracy with personal loyalties.

The original group now has splinter groups, and what is probably the only flag-waver for present-day Cuban dissidence has been the recipient of painful slights and insults.

Most of these women are not intellectuals and don´t feel comfortable in front of a microphone. But when they speak of their daily lives and the abuse they suffer from the political police, it is difficult to remain indifferent.

Many of them live in dreadful concrete houses with tiled roofs or in disgusting hostels. Perhaps it is difficult for them to find the exact words to describe what is happening in the country. But when it comes to courage, they are the equal of anybody.

Margarita Barberá, age 71, is the oldest of them. “And she has been leaving for the last eight years,” gossips a fat dark-skinned woman with a low voice and a ready laugh. The youngest is a 17-year-old called Roxana Moreno.

The march on Sunday, March 20th, will be their first. In the morning another four foreign journals showed up. Together we headed to Santa Rita Church.

Like it fell from the sky, a P-3 bus appeared, totally empty. “State Security has prepared for us. Although sometimes they take us straight to the dungeon,” said Moya.

In Miramar, another “phantom” bus signed for the P-1 route parked, without passengers. Berta Solar is somewhat surprised. “Are they not going to repress this Sunday because of Obama’s arrival?” she asks, but the response is immediate.

“I doubt it, they won’t go against their nature,” she says. Already, in Mahatma Gandhi Park on 5th Avenue and 22nd Street, there’s a brawl right in the street.

Three repressors from the special services are furiously beating the independent journalist Lazaro Yuri Valle Roca. Two of them pick him up and put him in a Russian-made Lada, while and with private plates.

The foreign reporters run with their cameras to film the scene. Later, after the end of the Mass, the group files along the central promenade of 5th Avenue, the only place in Cuba where the government allows dissent, and heads down 22nd Street headed toward Third, the place of the violence.

Around 250 people, between workers in the area and paramilitaries, advised by State Security officials, beat them with impunity and deployed a lamentable verbal lynching.

These are the famous “acts of repudiation.” A sad achievement of Fidel Castro’s Revolution. An apparently popular method of canceling the will of “the other.” Of annulling it. Of intimidation.

When the populace tires of the brawling and shouting that the Ladies in White are “mercenaries,” the police pretends to intervene to prevent the feast of violence from continuing.

A grey-haired man, stocky, who calls himself Romulo, tried to convince two foreign journalists that “these opponents are invented by the United States, they are criminals and mercenaries.”

“And because of this can can’t demand political rights?” I ask. “Since the Triumph of the Revolutions we Cubans have had all the political rights we need,” he responds.

“And why do they arrest and beat them?” I inquire. “Well,” he says hesitantly,” because they violate the laws with their public scandals,”

“And why don’t they also arrest the other side who are also screaming and beating?” I delve more deeply.

Lacking arguments he looks at me like I’m a freak, and says, “Which side are you?” and walks away. A former official of the Ministry of the Interior, who at least is present, says that because of “those lunatics (the opponents), the State spends some hundred thousand pesos every Sunday on fuel, blocking off streets, mobilizing the workers and diverting buses from public service.”

“Wouldn’t it be simpler if these people didn’t follow anyone, according to the government, leaving them to fight their own battles?” The man shut up without answering. The fourth bus, two ambulances and numerous patrol cars took 46 Ladies in White and 13 men to the dungeons.

When Air Force One landed in Havana, perhaps Obama’s advisors in Cuba mentioned the incident. It raises several questions. Will the president of the United States hold Raul Castro responsible for the repeated violations of human rights? He probably will, but without offering details.

Obama has already said that the road to democracy will be long. The Ladies in White know this better than anyone.

Translated by GH