The Ladies in White
By Kirthi Jayakumar
Image: Members of Cuban human rights group "Damas de Blanco" at their weekly demonstration following Sunday mass at Santa Rita church in Havana (Wikimedia Commons)
A sea of women dressed in white walked around in the streets in Cuba after attending Mass each Sunday. They protested in peace, sending a silent but firm message that the jailing of dissidents was unacceptable. The Damas de Blanco, or the Ladies in White, as they were known, were a group of wives, mothers, and sisters of jailed dissidents, protesting against their unfair arrest.
In 2003, the “Black Spring” unfolded in Cuba, when the government arrested, summarily tried, and sentenced as many as 75 human rights activists, independent journalists, and librarians to 28 years in prison – all for the “crime” of receiving funds from the American government and collaborating with US diplomats. The Cuban government’s act of arresting these individuals was seen by the international community as a violation of the basic norms of international human rights law, particularly the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
Two weeks after the arrests, Laura Pollan founded the Damas de Blanco. Through the group, women related to the arrested dissidents gathered each Sunday at St. Rita’s Church, and pray for their relatives in prison. After mass, the women embarked on a ritual procession from the church to a park nearby. Wearing badges that carried the photograph of their jailed relatives and the number of years they were sentenced for, the women would walk about silently. The Cuban government came down heavily in response to their protest: they criticized the Ladies in White and called them American-backed terrorists.
Fighting peacefully despite structural violence
In March 2005, on Palm Sunday, the Federation of Cuban Women, a pro-government initiative, sent a group of 150 women to counter protest the Damas de Blanco. On several occasions, the women were attacked, insults were hurled at them, and the police even rounded them up in their buses. The protesting women found safe haven in Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, who opened up space for them to protest outside his church.
The Damas de Blanco was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought along with other recipients. Even as five women from the movement – Laura Pollan, Miriam Leiva, Berta Soler, Loida Valdes, and Julia Núñez, were set to go in person to receive the prize in Sakharov, France, the Cuban government prevented them from attending the ceremony. The European Parliament drew an appeal on behalf of the women, and Berta Soler alone was allowed to leave to receive the prize on behalf of the organization.
In the time thereafter, the women were constantly subject to structural violence. In 2010, some of the women were arrested. Undaunted, they kept vigil for a dissident who later died while on hunger strike. In 2012, as many as 70 members were detained and then arrested and told by the Cuban police that they could no longer protest. By December that year, about 100-150 dissidents were placed under house arrest and 80 Damas de Blanco were detained. In 2015, 53 members were arrested. In 2016, as good number of women were arrested ahead of then US President Obama’s visit to Cuba – as the women protested before his visit. To the women, it seemed likely that they would not arrest them given the international attention President Obama’s visit brought to Cuba.
Image: Berta Soler addressing fellow Damas de Blanco in Havana after a regular Sunday demonstration (Wikimedia Commons)
Laura Pollan died in 2011 under “gravely suspicious circumstances.” Her legacy continues to endure as the Damas de Blanco continue to meet, pray, and remain witnesses every Sunday until Cuba’s political prisoners are freed. As Berta Soler noted in 2015:
“Our aspirations are legitimate…. Our demands are quite concrete: freedom for political prisoners, recognition of civil society, the elimination of all criminal dispositions that penalize freedom of expression and association and the right of the Cuban people to choose their future through free, multiparty elections. We believe these demands are just and valid. Even more importantly, for us they represent the most concrete exercise of politics, a step in the direction of democratic coexistence. Cuba will change when the laws that enable and protect the criminal behavior of the forces of repression and corrupt elements that sustain the regime change.”