Sunday, August 28, 2011


 THE AMERICAS  -  August 29, 011
Rocks, iron bars and sticks are no match for the gladiolas and courage of these peaceful Cuban protesters.


Rocks and iron bars were the weapons of choice in a government assault on a handful of unarmed women on the outskirts of Santiago de Cuba on the afternoon of Aug. 7. According to a report issued by the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the beatings were savage and "caused them injuries, some considerable."

It was not an isolated incident. In the past two months attacks on peaceful women dissidents, organized by the state security apparatus, have escalated. Most notable is the intensity with which the regime is moving to try to crush the core group known as the Ladies in White.

This is not without risk to the regime, should the international community decide to pay attention and apply pressure on the white-elite regime the way it did in opposition to apartheid in South Africa. But the decision to take that risk suggests that the 52-year-old dictatorship in Havana is feeling increasingly insecure. The legendary bearded macho men of the "revolution," informed by the trial of a caged Hosni Mubarak in an Egyptian courtroom, apparently are terrified by the quiet, prayerful, nonviolent courage of little more than 100 women. No totalitarian regime can shrug off the fearless audacity these ladies display, or the signs that their boldness is spreading.

Associated Press

In Havana, Laura Pollan (center), a leader of the Ladies in White, and other members of the group leave Mass before a protest march.

The Castro brothers' goons are learning that they will not be easily intimidated. Take, for example, what happened that same Aug. 7 morning in Santiago: The women, dressed in white and carrying flowers, had gathered after Sunday Mass at the cathedral for a silent procession to protest the regime's incarceration of political prisoners. Castro supporters and state security officials, "armed with sticks and other blunt objects," according to FIDH, assaulted the group both physically and verbally. The ladies were then dragged aboard a bus, taken outside the city and dropped off on the side of a highway.

Some of them regrouped and ventured out again in the afternoon, this time to hold a public vigil for their cause. That's when they were met by another Castro onslaught. On the same day thugs set upon the homes of former political prisoner José Daniel Ferrer and another activist. Six people, including Mr. Ferrer's wife and daughter, were sent to the hospital with contusions and broken bones, according to FIDH.

The Ladies in White first came on the scene in the aftermath of the infamous March 2003 crackdown in which 75 independent journalists and librarians, writers and democracy advocates were rounded up and handed prison sentences of six to 28 years. The wives, mothers and sisters of some of them began a simple act of protest. On Sundays they would gather at the Havana Cathedral for Mass and afterward they would march carrying gladiolas in a silent call for the prisoners' release.

In 2005 the Ladies in White won Europe's prestigious Sakharov prize for their courage. Cellphones that caught the regime's brutality against them on video helped get their story out. By 2010 they had so embarrassed the dictatorship internationally that a deal was struck to deport their imprisoned loved ones along with their family to Spain.

But some prisoners refused the deal and some of the ladies stayed in Cuba. Others joined them, calling themselves "Ladies in Support." The group continued its processions following Sunday Mass in Havana, and women on the eastern end of the island established the same practice in Santiago.

Laura Pollan, whose husband refused to take the offer of exile in Spain and was later released from prison, is a key member of the group. She and her cohorts have vowed to continue their activism as long as even one political prisoner remains jailed. Last week I spoke with her by phone in Havana, and she told me that when the regime agreed to release all of the 75, "it thought that the Ladies in White would disappear. Yet the opposite happened. Sympathizers have been joining up. There are now 82 ladies in Havana and 34 in Santiago de Cuba." She said that the paramilitary mobs have the goal of creating fear in order to keep the group from growing. But the movement is spreading to other parts of the country, places where every Sunday there are now marches.
This explains the terror that has rained down on the group in Santiago and surrounding suburbs on successive Sundays since July and on other members in Havana as recently as Aug. 18.

Last Tuesday, when four women dressed in black took to the steps of the capitol building in Havana chanting "freedom," a Castro bully tried to remove them. Amazingly, the large crowd watching shouted for him to leave them alone. Eventually uniformed agents carried them off. But the incident, caught on video, is evidence of a new chapter in Cuban history, and it is being written by women. How it ends may depend heavily on whether the international community supports them or simply shields its eyes from their torment.

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