Monday, October 24, 2011

A DISSIDENT'S MYSTERIOUS DEATH IN HAVANA by Mary Anastasia O' Grady (The Wall Street Journal)

Sunday, October 23, 2011
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:
Days after a beating by a mob, Laura Pollán fell ill and soon died. She was cremated two hours later.

For more than eight years, the Castro regime tried its level best to silence Ladies in White leader Laura Pollán. Ten days ago Pollán did fall silent. She passed away, after a brief illness, in a Havana hospital.

Hospital officials initially said that she died of cardiac and respiratory arrest. But according to Berta Soler, the spokesperson for the Ladies in White in Havana, the death certificate says that Pollán succumbed to diabetes mellitus type II, bronchial pneumonia and a syncytial virus.

Since there was no independent medical care available to her and there was no autopsy, we are unlikely ever to find out what killed Pollán. We do know that although she was a diabetic with high blood pressure, both were under control and she did not need regular insulin shots. Indeed, she had been healthy only weeks before her death, according to friends and family. We also know that the longer she remained under state care, the sicker she got.

Not surprisingly, the Cuban opposition is suspicious about her demise, and their concerns deserve an airing if only because of the nature of the totalitarian regime. It learned its trade from communist Eastern Europe, where the practice of eliminating enemies while in state custody was refined.

Over the life of the Cuban dictatorship, suspicious deaths (most commonly heart attacks) of otherwise healthy individuals who were considered disloyal to the Castros are not unheard of. The most famous was José Abrantes, a former interior minister and confidant of Fidel, who had a falling out with his boss, was imprisoned, and though known for being fit died of a heart attack in his cell in 1991. More than one defector from inside the regime has claimed that Abrantes was murdered.

Pollán took up her cause when her husband, Hector Maseda, was arrested, along with 74 others, in an island-wide crackdown on dissent in March 2003. Seeking a way to resist the injustice, she joined other women whose loved ones were handed down long sentences in Cuba's Black Spring. Together they organized a simple, peaceful act of disobedience: After attending Mass at St. Rita's church in Havana, they marched in the street, dressed in white and carrying gladiolas. The group was peaceful and nonpolitical. But to the regime it was dangerous. Mobs were unleashed against it.

Beatings, detentions, intimidation and harassment of the group were fruitless. The Ladies repeatedly returned to their "counterrevolutionary" practices: Sunday Mass, silent processions, Wednesday women's "literary teas" held in Ms. Pollán's home, prayer vigils for the persecuted.

The movement took on enormous visual power, and when images of the ladies being attacked in the streets went viral, the dictatorship was humiliated. The Castros were forced to offer the Black Spring prisoners "liberation" through exile with their spouses.

Pollán and her husband refused. Instead she expanded the movement across the country and promised to convert it to a human rights organization open to all women. Speaking from the Guanajay prison as her condition was deteriorating, jailed former Cuban counterintelligence officer Ernesto Borges Pérez told the Hablemos Press that making public those objectives likely sealed her fate.

On Sept. 24, Pollán was attacked by a mob as she tried to leave her house to attend Mass. Her right arm was reportedly twisted, scratched and bitten. This is notable because for more than a year, the Ladies had alleged that when Castro's enforcement squads came after them, the regime's goons pricked their skin with needles. Those same women claimed that they subsequently felt dizzy, nauseous and feverish. Independent journalist Carlos Ríos Otero reported this for Hablemos Press before Pollán was hospitalized.

According to interviews with Pollán's daughter and husband and with Ms. Soler, conducted by the Miami-based nongovernmental organization Directorio, eight days after the Sept. 24 assault Pollán came down with chills and began vomiting. Wracked with pain in her joints the next day, she was taken to the Calixto García hospital. After a battery of tests she was told everything was normal and released. On Oct. 4, she had a fever and shortness of breath. A prescribed antibiotic did not help. On Oct. 7 she was admitted to the hospital, later transferred to intensive care and the next day put on a respirator.

Her family was denied visitation rights until Oct. 10, when only her daughter was allowed to see her. State security agents surrounded her bed and monitored the doctors. On Oct. 12 doctors reported that she had a syncytial respiratory virus, which is otherwise known as a cold. She was obviously much sicker.

On Oct. 14 she died. When the family was allowed to see the body, state security agents were again on hand, as they were at the one-hour wake permitted at midnight. In record time—only two hours later—Pollán was returned to ashes. Who could blame the resistance for its suspicions?

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