Commentary: Ladies in White founder Laura Pollán's legacy of courage

The Miami HeraldOctober 19, 2011 

In Miami, Havana and cities around the world where she touched hearts and changed views on Cuba, Laura Pollán is being remembered as a woman of exceptional courage.

She didn’t possess a discursive resume or a commanding title. She was simply a wife, a mother, and a retired professor of literature who became one of the founders of the brave group of women in Cuba known as Las Damas de Blanco.

Her husband’s arrest propelled her into the limelight. An independent journalist and peaceful dissident, Héctor Maseda was sentenced in 2003 to 20 years in prison for the sole crime of speaking his mind about the lack of basic human rights on the island.

Armed only with a gladiolus stem and dressed in white as a metaphor for the purity of her intentions, Pollán protested her husband’s incarceration and that of 74 other Cuban journalists and dissidents by marching in silence on Sundays along Havana’s Fifth Avenue, along with a small group of women whose husbands, fathers, brothers also were imprisoned that Black Spring of 2003.

The peaceful, silent march of the Ladies in White every Sunday became known around the world — more so after March 17, 2010, when government officials removed them violently from the street and their actions were videotaped and posted on the Internet.

Constantly harassed by pro-government mobs, her hair pulled, her body punched, her house surrounded to keep her from leaving or receiving visitors, Pollán never wavered from her peaceful and eloquent call for the release of Cuba’s political prisoners.

She battled the violence against her and the Ladies in White with serenity, her words measured and to the point, delivered with the confidence of a seasoned orator.

“Our struggle is here, not in exile,” she once said when asked if she would consider leaving the island to whisk her family to safe haven elsewhere.

For the pro-government mobs attacking her, Pollán had a single message: Someday the dissident might be you or a loved one of yours. When the government no longer has use for you, she told her opponents, you too will suffer the consequences. She encouraged those attacking her to envision the future of their children in a free Cuba.

Pollán, 63, died Friday in a Havana hospital seven days after she sought medical attention for shortness of breath. There’s not much certainty about the cause of death, as reports from Havana have varied and cited a respiratory virus, dengue fever or a heart attack. One can only imagine what she endured in a hospital run by the Cuban government, the very people she so effectively opposed.

She wouldn’t be the first dissident or prominent figure to die in questionable circumstances, and her last days illustrate how vulnerable Cuba’s courageous dissidents truly are in a nation ruled as if it were a private dynasty.

Pollán had made it clear she wasn’t going to stop her peaceful protests even though most of the 75 dissidents had been released from prison through the controversial agreement negotiated last year by the Catholic Church and the government of Spain.

“Our original mission was to liberate the 75, but we realized that they weren’t the only political prisoners and we expanded our mission to all of the prisoners of conscience being held in Cuba,” Pollán explained in one of the many videos posted by journalists and supporters on the Internet.

Now her death, instead of dissuading others from speaking out against injustice, is inspiring them to continue the fight for human rights and democracy.

In Miami, where thousands turned out last year to march in support of the Ladies in White, a Mass is planned in her honor. Miami-Dade College announced Monday that a scholarship will be named after her, to be awarded to a student with the vocation to work on behalf of human rights.

In Havana, the Ladies in White — black, white and mixed-race women young enough to be students, old enough to be grandmothers, and every age in between — were a sight to behold at their peaceful march last Sunday, this time to commemorate Pollán’s life.

For the first time ever, they were joined by men as they peacefully marched and then gathered at Pollán’s house for a three-day vigil. Maseda, now freed from prison, took his wife’s place and held her photograph.

“Let the government know that we’re still strong,” vowed veteran Lady in White Bertha Soler. “We will continue the struggle.”

Pollán’s home in the modest Centro Habana neighborhood will continue to be the center of operations for the Ladies in White, her husband said. On Tuesday he planned to host the customary literary tea for which Pollán was known.

As for the founder of Las Damas de Blanco, her ashes will be scattered in a field of flowers in her beloved homeland.

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