By Nelson Acosta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Late "Ladies in White" leader Laura Pollan was remembered on Saturday with a simple altar in her home in the crumbling Central Havana neighborhood and vows that the dissident group she founded would go on.
A blue vase holding the ashes of Pollan, who died on Friday after a brief illness, sat on a small table with several photos of her and flowers brought by friends who included diplomats.
Some of Cuba's most prominent dissidents attended the wake, where they grieved for the former school teacher who became one of Cuba's top opposition voices as she led the Ladies in White with a fearless defiance of the Cuban government.
In contrast to other turbulent moments when her group was harassed by pro-government mobs, the streets outside her home were quiet, with life going on as usual.
Leaders of the communist island have said nothing about her death, but in Washington White House Press Secretary Jay Carney praised Pollan and her group for having "courageously voiced the core desire of the Cuban people and of people everywhere to live in liberty."
"Since the beginning of the (Obama) administration we have worked to reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire to freely determine their future and Cuba's future. We will continue that work in Pollan's memory," he said.
Pollan led the founding of the Ladies in White after 75 dissidents, including her husband Hector Maseda, were imprisoned in a March 2003 government crackdown known as Havana's Black Spring.
Dressed in white and each carrying a single white flower, the women defied government pressure by staging silent marches every Sunday on one of Havana's main avenues demanding the release of their loved ones. At the end of each march, they shouted in unison "libertad," or freedom.
Public protests were unheard of at the time and remain a rarity today in tightly controlled Cuba, where the government views dissidents as mercenaries for the United States, its longtime enemy that works closely with dissidents to promote political change.
MARCHES WILL CONTINUE
Last year, after international condemnation for the death of an imprisoned dissident who staged a long hunger strike, President Raul Castro relented and released 115 political prisoners, including those from the 2003 crackdown, in a deal brokered by the Catholic Church.
The Ladies in White, saying Cuba still has political prisoners, have continued their marches and will do so again this Sunday and into the future, said Berta Soler, Pollan's longtime co-leader of the group.
"We're going to continue our peaceful fight for the liberation of all political prisoners. We'll also continue defending the human rights of the Cuban people," vowed Soler, speaking in the hushed, grief-stricken ambience of Pollan's wake.
"We plan to march tomorrow on Fifth Avenue like we do every Sunday. It will be a special march for Laura," she said.
Pollan's husband, Hector Maseda, told the women they must not stop, despite the loss of his wife.
"You have to keep going as you have until now, with intelligence, not accepting provocations. You have become a dagger in the middle of the heart of the government," he said.
Despite the vows to go on, Pollan will not be easy to replace.
Under her leadership, the Ladies in White were awarded the 2005 Sakharov award for human rights from the European Parliament, named for late Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov, and have been considered candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize.
"She was a person who gave her life over to fighting for the fundamental cause of human rights. (Her death) has been an irreparable loss," said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission of Human Rights.
Pollan died of cardiac arrest in a Havana hospital where she had been treated since October 7 for a pulmonary illness.
Some of her supporters had raised questions about whether she had received good medical care in Cuba's state-run medical system, but Maseda praised the medical team attending her and said "they tried to save my wife' life until the last minute."
Maseda said some of her ashes would be placed in a crypt in her hometown of Manzanillo in the southeastern province of Granma and others scattered in a field of flowers, as she had once requested.
(Writing by Jeff Franks; editing by xxx)