Monday, July 29, 2013

An Interview with Berta Soler, Leader of the Ladies in White

An Interview with Berta Soler, Leader of the Ladies in White / Ivan Garcia
Posted on July 28, 2013
(Exclusive, Iván García in Havana)

If you want confirmation that socialism does not work, do yourself a
favor and visit Alamar. This community, twenty minutes east of Havana,
is an example of real urban chaos. A place without rhyme or reason,
ugly, poorly constructed buildings rise four, five, even eighteen
stories high along poorly paved, winding roads.

I spent more than an hour trying to find building number 657 where Berta
Soler lives. She is the leader of the brave women known as the Ladies in
White, a group founded in April 2003 in response to the imprisonment of
seventy-five peaceful activists opposed to the Cuban regime.

For the last 28 years, Berta has lived in Alamar, a bedroom-community
created in 1970 to alleviate Havana's housing shortage. Her convoluted
neighborhood, with its run-down interior alleyways, is known as Siberia.

Soler shares a modest two-bedroom apartment with her two sons and
husband, Ángel Moya, one of the twelve Black Spring dissidents who opted
to continue his opposition work from inside the country. In her
ivory-colored living room there is a photo of Pope Francis greeting
Berta during a public audience at the Vatican.

When I arrive, she and her husband are washing a large batch of clothes.
"We have to take advantage of the break in the rain," Berta explains,
looking at the items and throwing them into the washer. Before sitting
down in a red vinyl sofa for an interview with Diario de las Américas,
she prepares coffee in her tiny kitchen.

"I was born in Jovellanos, Matanzas province. I came to Havana when I
was nineteen. I am a microbiological technician and worked in the
América Arias maternity hospital. Before becoming a Lady-in-White, I
belonged to a dissident group called the Leonor Pérez Mothers' Committee.

"It was the beginning of the 2003 wave of repression. In the foyer of
Villa Marista — the barracks of the political police — there was Blanca
Reyes, the wife of poet Raúl Rivero, Claudia Márquez, Gisela Delgado,
Miriam Leyva and Laura Pollán, among others. By order of Fidel Castro we
had been separated from our husbands, fathers and sons. We decided to
demand their release by carrying out a march every Sunday outside St.
Rita's Church in Miramar.

"From that moment Laura excelled at being the leader. She was my sister,
my comrade-in-arms. Those were years of marches, verbal attacks and
beatings by paramilitary mobs. On October 14, 2011, when she died under
circumstances that I find suspicious, I felt as though a part of me had
been ripped out. In one week the regime planned Laura's death. One day
what really happened will come to light.

"In the beginning there were forty-eight Ladies in White. Most of us had
never been dissidents. We were workers, technicians and housewives who
were forced by Castro's dictatorship to protest, demanding the release
of our loved ones.

"In 2010 the repression against us intensified. Most of us are monitored
by the regime's special services. In front of what had been Laura's
residence in Central Havana, they still maintain an intelligence command
post with cameras and listening devices. In an apartment across from
mine they have installed a permanent operative.

"Every time we go out into the streets of any province to march —
gladiolas in hand, demanding freedom for political prisoners still in
detention and asking that human rights be respected — the state
'generously' spends resources that it does not invest in the people on
tracking and repressing us. There are always police patrol cars, two
city buses (in spite of the shortages in the urban transport system),
hundreds of agents with communication equipment and even an ambulance. I
would like to know how much money is spent on repressing us.

"After Laura's death it was decided that I should be the group's
spokeswoman. We don't have many secrets except logistical details such
as the hour, day and location of a march. Since November 2011 we have
had a standing rule. Any woman may join the group.

"We keep growing. Currently we have 240 women working on seven fronts:
Havana, Granma, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo, Villa Clara and
Matanzas. Soon we will add Ciego de Ávila. But, like I always say, we
prefer quality to quantity," notes the leader of the Ladies in White.

Berta Soler was a key player in a negotiation in April 2010 between the
government of General Raúl Castro and Cuban cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino.

"We have to thank the cardinal and the Catholic church for their role as
mediator in the conflict which arose after the death of Orlando Zapata
from a hunger strike. Those were difficult months. The repression was
fierce. Jaime Ortega himself witnessed a savage attack and verbal
assaults against the Ladies in White from the doorway of St. Rita's Church.

"It was then that Ortega decided to write a letter to Raúl Castro to
negotiate a release. The cardinal acted as go-between. The regime wanted
us to expel the Ladies in Support.* We refused. We reminded General
Castro that, when they were imprisoned after the assault on the Moncada
Barracks, his mother sought support from people who were not relatives."

They then gave in. It was historic. For the first time the military
rulers allowed them to march along Fifth Avenue without being harassed
by paramilitaries. Mediation by Ortega and Spanish chancellor Miguel
Ángel Moratinos led to the release of all the prisoners arrested for
their support of the seventy-five and most of the other political detainees.

"But these days the Catholic church and the cardinal remain silent,
continues Berta." Other dissidents and I have even been the subject of
strong criticism in Espacio Laical, the clergy's own publication. Right
now, even as we speak, there is a Lady in White who has been held for
over a year without trial.

"She is the only member of the group in prison. Her name is Sonia Garro.
She and her husband, Ramón Alejandro Muñoz, were detained in March 2012
as though they were terrorists. The Ladies in White demanded their
immediate release," says Soler.

It started pouring down rain in Alamar. Berta went to the kitchen to
prepare dinner. As she peeled sweet potatoes, she continued.

"One member of the group, Berta Guerrero — a resident of Holguín — went
through an extensive interrogation in which she suffered physical
torture in her hands and was held in a room whose temperature had been
set very low. We learned that State Security asked her to collaborate
with them in exchange for a new house. When she refused, they issued a
blunt warning: 'We have been ordered to put an end to the Ladies in
White by July 26.'

"None of this intimidates us. We will continue to grow stronger. Even if
the regime frees those close to the fifty political prisoners who remain
in jail, we will keep marching in support of democracy and human rights.

"And to clear up the legal gibberish looming over the twelve dissidents
who decided to remain in their homeland, among them my husband.
Technically they are not free men. The regime can overturn their cases
and send them back to jail. None of them has been issued a passport so
they can travel," Berta points out.

The leader of the Ladies in White sees the value in dissidents' recent
overseas trips. "I believe they have been positive," she say. "They have
exposed the deplorable economic and social conditions and the lack of
political freedom in our country. We have learned how civil society
functions in democratic countries. When you return, you realize how much
there is left to be done in every area, especially in community work."

In response to the accusations by eighteen members of Ladies in White
Laura Pollan Movement in the eastern provinces, Berta states, "On June
30 the Ladies in White issued a declaration. It was a painful decision.
We can accept any opinion, whether it be from someone in exile or any
other dissident in Cuba. And we respect that. But we believe the
internal affairs of the group should be left to us to manage. In my
opinion the evidence is not strong enough to accuse Lady-in-White Denia
Fernández Rey of being an agent of Cuban special services. You cannot
condemn a person on the basis of reasonable doubt."

Berta Soler is a woman of character. Her group's vociferous demands for
freedom during their peaceful protest marches over the course of ten
years cannot be ignored.

"We have made great personal sacrifices. These include family members
dying from poor medical attention while we were marching. Children like
my daughter who have not been accepted to universities due to our
political positions. Years in jail from which our relatives never
recovered. Sisters like Laura Pollan who are no longer with us. And
other Ladies in White who had to go into exile. No, Iván, this struggle
has cost too much. No one is going to divide us, especially not the
divisions hardened by the Castro special services.

Text and photo by Iván García

*Translator's note: The Ladies in Support was organized to support the
cause of the Ladies in White. Its members generally do not have
relatives in prison but they often join in the group's peaceful marches.

Translation by Irish Sam and Cuban Nellie

16 July 2013

Source: "An Interview with Berta Soler, Leader of the Ladies in White /
Ivan Garcia | Translating Cuba" -

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