Castro vs. the Ladies in White
Rocks, iron bars and sticks are no match for the gladiolas and courage
of these peaceful Cuban protesters.
By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
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.
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
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.
Write to O'Grady@wsj.com.