Eight years ago, Laura Pollan was a schoolteacher living with her husband, Hector Maseda, the leader of the outlawed Cuban Liberal Party. Despite the vicissitudes of living in a country where association is penalized, the family tried to live a normal life in their small house on Neptune Street in Havana.
But early one morning, a pounding on the door irrevocably changed their lives. After an exhaustive search and a summary trial, Maseda was imprisoned and sentenced to 20 years in jail, accused of acting against national security. His crime: imagining a different Cuba, politically opposing the authorities and putting those opinions in writing.
Seventy-five opposition figures were arrested and condemned during that sad March of 2003, a time that will remain forever known in Cuba’s history as the Black Spring. The Cuban government expected this blow to the opposition to persuade other restless citizens to abandon the ranks of the protesters. Officials also believed that the wives, mothers and daughters of the political prisoners would remain silent, so as not to cause more problems for their loved ones. They never anticipated that these women would band together to publicly denounce the arrests and imprisonments. But every political calculation made from the arrogance of power turned out badly.
Thus was born the Ladies in White, a group of women who, through peaceful struggle, demanded and achieved the release of all the prisoners of conscience. At first it seemed a tiny, disjointed movement, given the long miles separating one woman from another. But the ladies’ indignation functioned as a unifying element, and their marches through the streets of Havana, each woman dressed in white and carrying a gladiolus, followed Sunday after Sunday for more than seven years. One voice stood out among them, that of a diminutive blue-eyed woman who taught Spanish and literature to teenagers.
Laura Pollan was emerging as the spokeswoman and leader of the Ladies in White, which focused on human rights and the release of their relatives. In a country that has always been moved by the polarization of its ideological discourse, the Ladies in White were different from their inception. Instead of party platforms, the women displayed only the desire to embrace their loved ones. They did not choose to organize themselves around a doctrine but rather around the unassailable position of family affection. Thus they won a great deal of sympathy among the population of the island, and so, of course, provoked the authorities into a campaign of defamation and insults against them.
If one group has been denigrated to a fault in the Cuban media, it is the Ladies in White. The regime has launched a kind of media war against the women, backed by experiments in intimidation. “Repudiation rallies” — busloads of “spontaneous” protesters called in to scream insults at and even beat their targets — made Pollan’s front door their highest altar. Official journalists called them “The Ladies in Green,” an allusion to the economic support they received from Cubans in exile in order to take food to their imprisoned husbands. Meanwhile, the Cuban government didn’t hesitate to dip into its national coffers for every kind of political attack; part of this money — which could have gone to feed Cubans — was spent ferreting out every cent that reached the hands of these women in need.
The national press continued to denigrate Pollan even on Oct. 7, when she was admitted into the intensive care unit of a Havana hospital with aching bones, shortness of breath and extreme weakness.
Given the seriousness of her condition, government officials asked her family if the patient could be transferred to a luxury clinic designed for the military. But Pollan herself said, before losing consciousness in an induced coma, “I want to stay in the hospital of the people.” And there she died on Oct. 14, after a five-day delay in diagnosing dengue fever, in a country that has been experiencing an intense outbreak of the disease for months now.
While newspapers around the world reported on the death of Laura Pollan, Granma, the official paper of the Communist Party, and all the papers of Cuba’s provinces remained silent. This reaction is a given, considering the pettiness of a government that cannot feel sympathy at the death of an opponent. The Castro regime has never been able to pause in its belligerence, never been able to offer condolences.
But this silence also stems from its fear of this little teacher of Spanish, the fear that sticks, even now, in officials’ throats. The leader of the Ladies in White is dead, and no one in Cuba will ever carry a gladiolus in his or her hands without thinking of Laura Pollan.
By Yoani Sanchez, a writer in Cuba. Her awards include the 2010 World Press Freedom Hero award. She blogs at https://generacionyen.wordpress.com/ and is the author of Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today. This column was translated from Spanish by M.J. Porter.