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    First Anniversary of the Death of Laura Pollan

    First Anniversary of the Death of Laura Pollan

    Translating Cuba

    Of short stature, with blue eyes and a firm voice, Laura Pollan was for

    years one of the most visible faces in Cuba of the Ladies in White. A

    teacher by profession and a civic activist by choice, she participated

    in the creation and strengthening of the most important dissident group

    on the island today.

    This October 14 marks the first anniversary of her death, and many are

    reviewing her legacy and the current state of the movement she helped to

    found. Twelve months ago the big question was if this women's group

    could survive the death of its principal leader, but that question has

    already been answered.

    The current spokeswoman, Berta Soler, tells us that the Ladies in White

    have grown both in number and in their presence throughout the country.

    If, initially, the activities organized by the group were confined to

    Havana, now they also extend to Guantanamo, Santiago de Cuba, Matanzas,

    Cienfuegos, Villa Clara and Pinar del Rio.

    Although she prefers not to share the exact number of women members, it

    is estimated to exceed 180 in all of Cuba. In her role as spokeswoman,

    Berta is confident, energetic. But for her, as well, the past year has

    meant a significant change in her life. On her shoulders, now, rests the

    responsibility that she seems to carry with ease. She always refers to

    her predecessor and does so with love and respect.

    This Sunday, if they are allowed to gather there, the Ladies in White

    will make a special pilgrimage around Santa Rita Church as a tribute to

    Laura Pollan. From the early hours of the morning, at their headquarters

    in Neptune Street, they will also open the doors to all who wish to pay

    their respects or sign the memory book for the fallen leader. Already,

    an altar dressed in white adorns the corner of the little room where she

    lived and a photo of Laura smiling is surrounded by gladioli.

    Since last Friday, traffic on Neptune Street, a major capital arterial,

    has been blocked off. Government supporters are gathered in front of the

    Ladies in White headquarters, claiming to be there "to commemorate the

    45th anniversary of the death of Ernesto Guevara and 53 years since the

    disappearance of Camilo Cienfuegos."

    None of them, when asked, made any reference to the women dressed in

    white whom they could see through the open door of the house at number

    963. The volume of music at the event had been annoying the neighbors

    since early morning. "I don't know why all the fuss against some

    peaceful unarmed women?" said a young man, who fled out of fear of

    reprisals after saying his name. Meanwhile, the conga broadcast through

    the bullhorns continued to blare in all directions.

    Laura Pollan: the woman who jumped beyond her own shadow

    When her husband was arrested during the so-called Black Spring of 2003,

    Laura Pollan's life experienced a radical change. She rose from

    anonymity and domestic routine to be at the center of praise from

    democratizing forces and insults from the official press.

    The last Sunday of March in 2003 a group of women dressed in white

    clothing attended mass for the first time at Santa Rita Parish, in the

    beautiful Miramar district of Havana. From that time on, peaceable 5th

    Avenue became the scene of their Sunday March for this group of women

    that grew in number and prestige over the years. Their main demand was

    structured around the release of the 75 opponents of the regime

    sentenced to long prison terms. Fidel Castro's government had dealt a

    devastating blow to the dissidence, justifying it legally with Law 88,

    also known as the "Gag Law." The accusations centered around the alleged

    involvement of the accused with destablization plans hatched in the

    United States.

    In 2005 these women, always dressed in white, were recognized with the

    European Parliament's Sakharov Prize, but the government did not allow

    them to travel to participate in the award ceremony. However, they

    continued their peregrinations every Sunday and also other activities,

    principally in the city of Havana. The headquarters of the group came to

    be the humble home of Laura Pollan, in Neptune Street.

    Repudiation rallies raged against them as did attacks in the official

    media. It was a rare month in which there wasn't some television program

    accusing them of being "employees of the Empire" or categorizing them

    with the aggressive epithet, "Ladies in Green." Reputation assassination

    and a public stoning of their image have been among the methods most

    used against the Ladies in White. Laura Pollan was a favorite and

    systematic target of these defamations.

    Between 2010 and 2011 the Cuban government carried out a process of

    releases, in which the Catholic Church and Spain's Foreign Ministry

    played the role of mediators. The prisoners from the Black Spring still

    behind bars were released. Many went into exile in Spain and a few

    others decided to remain in Cuba. The Ladies in White had to redefine

    their civic role and chose, then, a Human Rights movement that now

    transcends their original precepts. The headquarters of the movement

    continues to be the home of Laura Pollan.

    When Laura Pollan was admitted to a Havana hospital emergency room, very

    few believed that her situation was terminal. The fortitude that

    animated this little woman made us believe she would recover quickly.

    But on the night of October 14 the news of her death dismayed the entire

    Cuban dissident community. Although the medical report stated that the

    cause of death was respiratory failure, doubts still surround the death

    of the activist.

    When she died she had been able to enjoy only eight months in the

    company of her husband after he was imprisoned for more than seven years.

    One year later

    The peaceful woman's movement Laura Pollan helped to conceive and build,

    has redefined itself and shows signs of growth. It seems unlikely that

    the Cuban government can eradicate the Ladies in White with acts of

    repudiation, with defamation and with brief arrests. But nor does the

    day seem near when they will recognize them and legally allow their


    According to Berta Soler, "repression is now greater and stronger than

    ever." She made that statement in the room where a little over a year

    ago Laura Pollan sat, talked, gave statements to the press… lived.

    14 October 2012


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