By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - The dissident group Ladies in White sent a message of defiance to the Cuban government on Sunday, having men join them for their weekly protest march and vowing to go on despite the death of leader Laura Pollan.
The group allowed men to march with them for the first time since forming in 2003 to honor them for their support of the group and of Pollan, who died after a brief illness on Friday at the age of 63.
More than 100 men and women, the latter dressed in white and wearing black ribbons of mourning, walked along Havana's Fifth Avenue in silence, as the Ladies in White have done every Sunday for more than eight years.
At the end of the 25-minute march they shouted "Laura Pollan lives" instead of their usual "Freedom." As happens most of the time, passing Cubans took little notice of the march.
It was believed to be the first time in decades men had taken part in a public protest in Cuba, without the intervention of police and state security agents, none of whom were visibly present.
Berta Soler, Pollan's long-time co-leader, said it was the only time men would join the women in their marches, which will go on as always.
"It's a very difficult moment but a moment in which we cannot weaken," she said. "Laura Pollan is with us spiritually and will march with us today and forever."
"Let the Cuban government see that we are strong and we are going to continue this fight for freedom of political prisoners but also defend human rights," she said to the women, some of whom wept softly.
Pollan led the founding of the Ladies in White to demand freedom for her husband and 74 other dissidents after they were imprisoned in a March 2003 government crackdown.
They began their weekly marches in a time when public protests were non-existent in tightly controlled Cuba and are still very rare.
The government tried to shut the marches down but never figured out an internationally acceptable way to do it and allowed them to go on, under certain limitations.
Cuban leaders view dissidents as being in the pay of the United States, their longtime enemy.
The defiant Pollan became one of Cuba's leading opposition voices and was deeply involved in the dissident movement until she developed pulmonary illness and died at a Havana hospital, in a blow to Cuba's small dissident community.
Her husband, Hector Maseda, and the others jailed in 2003 have been released from prison, with most going free after President Raul Castro agreed to free them in deal brokered by the Catholic Church last year.
Maseda took part in Sunday's march, carrying a photo of Pollan in a past protest, with the words "Laura Pollan Toledo...present."
He said he would allow the Ladies in White to continue using the home he shared with Pollan in Havana's Central Havana neighborhood as their headquarters.
(Editing by Bill Trott)