Their Love Is A Thorn In The Heel of Castro’s Regime
Every Sunday, after Catholic Mass, a gaggle of women wearing white march through Havana’s streets in opposition to the Cuban government, not under the banner of a political opposition party, but in the name of love.
Ladies in White, or, Damas de Blanco, is one Cuba’s most prominent opposition groups. They’ve been raising hell since after the “Black Spring” of 2003, when 75 political non conformists–their husbands, fathers, and sons–were arrested and condemned to long years in prison just for advocating for a free Cuba. Hoping to make an example of these opposition figures, never in their wildest dreams did officials predict that the women who loved them, with indignation as their glue, would band together across miles of separation to demand respect for human rights and the release of their relatives–week after week– holding gladiolus instead of picket signs.
Since then, male and female dissenters, as independents and as groups, have been jailed for publicly disagreeing with the totalitarian government. However, it has only strengthened the group’s support, and resolve. The Cuban government has used the media to debase the group and employed intimidation tactics in an effort to try to scare its members straight. Not happening. Because, every week, 300 government backers surround the crew of 50 (consisting of the women and other supporters) to pelt insults and slogans— sometimes resorting to violence. And conversely, every week, female officers load the Ladies in White onto buses and hold them for hours, only to release them. All for their protection, of course. And the following Sunday, after church, Ladies in White meets up on 5th Avenue to do it all over again.
On Palm Sunday, 50 Ladies in White and their supporters, carrying palm fronds, found themselves outnumbered by journalists, due to their auspicious timing. As it happened, the Cuban government was pensively anticipating the historic arrival of the Obamas and a posse of 40 lawmakers and CEOs— quite possibly flying over the island as they chanted, “Libertad! Libertad!” At an intersection in the well-off neighborhood of Miramar, the Ladies in White faced off with the usual pro-government crowd brandishing Cuban flags and placards. The Ladies and their supporters tossed scraps of paper signifying their cause up, up into the air, and as the paper rained down, they went limp, collapsing in the street. State agents swooped in and a shoving match ensued, before they folded the protesters into three buses, labeled “Operations,” and drove away. All in ten minutes flat.
One week’s well-oiled street ballet had a world audience and it highlighted the Cuban government’s inability to make its denizens “behave” in lieu of an American president’s first visit to the island in almost nine decades. Obama’s overarching goal for the historic three-day trip was to “engage with the Cuban people,” particularly dissidents. In fact, Ladies in White leader Berta Soler, co-founder Mirian Leiva, and 11 other government critics and activists got privately driven to meet with Obama on Tuesday to share their grievances with the Cuban and US governments, despite typical, menacing attempts to discourage them from doing so.
The meeting extended an hour past the half hour slot. Obama generously listened to everyone. In a conversation with the Miami Herald after the meeting, Soler shared that she had asked Obama to call for an amnesty for political prisoners and to condition future negotiations with Castro on ending “police violence” against dissidents. “We told him it wasn’t the right time for him to come to Cuba, since he said he’d come to Cuba if there had been advances in human rights,” Soler added.
Next Sunday, an immense love for their husbands, sisters, and fathers will send the Ladies in White into Havana streets, their second church, toting gladioluses and leaflets. They will trickle from their homes in the morning, their clothes pressed and pristine, only to return many hours later stained, scuffed up, and bruised. With the greatest force of the universe at their backs, they will not be broken.