Cuba's 'Ladies' mark Human Rights Day amid protest

AP News
Posted: Dec 10, 2011 4:38 PM
Cuba's 'Ladies' mark Human Rights Day amid protest

Cuba's Ladies in White dissident group paid homage to their late leader while observing International Human Rights Day at her home Saturday, surrounded by a jeering pro-government crowd for a second straight day.

Photos of Laura Pollan and messages of condolence adorned the wall of the house where she lived in central Havana and that served as a headquarters for the Ladies since the group was formed in 2003.

Next to a lit candle, an empty chair was draped with white clothing that belonged to Pollan. A single gladiola and a tiny Cuban flag rested on the lap.

"Laura Pollan lives!" the Ladies cried, and "Freedom for political prisoners!"

Outside, dozens of supporters of President Raul Castro's government, many of them students, massed at the front door and shouted revolutionary slogans and insults at the women inside.

"Viva Fidel! Viva Raul!" they chanted, draping huge Cuban and revolutionary flags from the roof.

Bertha Soler, one of the founders of the Ladies and its unofficial leader since Pollan's death in October, blamed authorities for the crowd.

"We want to go into the streets, which is the right of the Cuban people, but the Cuban government prevents us from doing so with these organized mobs," Soler said. "The aggression is psychological, not physical, and it's a demonstration of the Cuban government's intolerance."

Authorities insist such counterprotests known as "acts of repudiation" are spontaneous acts by citizens disgusted by the dissidents, whom authorities accuse of being mercenaries paid by the U.S. to destabilize the island. Little is done to hide coordination with state security, however.

It was the second counterprotest outside Pollan's home in as many days.

On Friday, a crowd gathered there as the Ladies held a "literary tea" inside and a flotilla organized by Miami exile groups parked in international waters off Cuba, setting off fireworks in solidarity with the Ladies and other dissidents.

The exiles had also urged acts of protest by Cubans such as banging on pots and pans, though there was no sign that many people heeded their call.

The Ladies in White was founded in 2003 by Pollan, Soler and other wives of government opponents who were rounded up and given long prison terms in a crackdown on dissent.

The last of those prisoners still behind bars were released earlier this year, and many left the island for exile with their families.

Those still remaining in the Ladies in White have vowed to press for the release of other inmates who are serving time for politically motivated but violent crimes like hijacking and sabotage. Because of the violence tied to their acts, those inmates are not recognized as prisoners of conscience by outside human rights groups like Amnesty International.