CubaBrief: Nine years after her suspicious death and the legacy of Laura Pollán continues to present a challenge to the Castro dictatorship

They can either kill us, put us in jail or release them. We will never stop marching no matter what happens.” – Laura Inés Pollán Toledo (2010)

Radio Martí reported on October 14, 2020 that the headquarters of the Ladies in White in Lawton, Havana, starting early Wednesday morning was under police surveillance, on a day when several activists from that movement planned to gather there to pay tribute to Laura Pollán on the ninth anniversary of her death. The current leader of the Ladies in White, Berta Soler explained that “in the early morning hours neighbors were telling us that the blocks near the national headquarters of the Ladies in White here in Havana were surrounded.” The Ladies in White leader stressed that Pollán “lost her life for the freedom of political prisoners, the freedom of the Cuban people and respect for human rights.”

From L to R: Héctor Maseda, Laura Pollán, Angel Moya and Berta Soler in 2011.

From L to R: Héctor Maseda, Laura Pollán, Angel Moya and Berta Soler in 2011.

Who was Laura Pollán? Why did the Castro regime fear this woman so much that nine years later they must surround a neighborhood to prevent Cubans from peacefully gathering to remember her? Cuban human rights defender Janisset Rivero, in an article published yesterday in Marti Noticias, provides part of the answer: “Laura had a sweet voice and an accent from the east of the country; she had been a teacher of literature, and I suspect that her literary knowledge made her identify with the beauty of the cause of freedom in Cuba. Her husband, dedicated to political opposition work, put her at a crossroads, like many other relatives of political prisoners in Cuba at the beginning of the millennium. Laura took up the challenge [in 2003] and believed in her mission. She raised up love against hatred, peace against terror. She did it without losing her sweetness, but with a poise and common sense that earned her leadership among the other women.” Defending, and not abandoning her husband, cost Laura her career as a teacher, but she did not become bitter, and her leadership grew.  This is why the dictatorship fears her, and we remember and honor her memory.

The proof of a great leader is measured by who follows them in leadership.  Berta Soler, a former hospital technician with training in microbiology, has continued the freedom struggle and nine years later continues to push for freedom.

Laura Pollán and Héctor Maseda embrace in March 2011

Laura Pollán and Héctor Maseda embrace in March 2011

The Cuban dictatorship did all it could to crush the Ladies in White, including physical violence, but Laura, and the other Ladies in White, answered with non-violent and strategic resistance achieving greater visibility both internationally and nationally.

Following brutal repression, in an effort to prevent them from marching through the streets of Havana, Laura Pollán directly and nonviolently challenged the regime declaring, “we will never give up our protest. The authorities have three options — free our husbands, imprison us or kill us.”

The tyranny freed their husbands finally, hoping the movement would disband having achieved its immediate objective. Laura’s husband, Héctor Fernando Maseda Gutiérrez, a former nuclear engineer and a journalist, was freed in February of 2011.  

Since she did not dissolve the Ladies in White when her husband returned home because she recognized that the laws had not changed, that political prisoners remained behind bars, that there would be more, and that due to this reality she would continue her human rights activism. Mary O’Grady in The Wall Street Journal on October 24, 2011 reported that Pollán instead of disbanding would expand “the movement across the country and promised to convert it to a human rights organization open to all women. Speaking from the Guanajay prison as her condition was deteriorating, jailed former Cuban counterintelligence officer Ernesto Borges Pérez told the Hablemos Press that making public those objectives likely sealed her fate.” Laura Pollán died on October 14, 2011 and was cremated shortly afterwards.

Following her death, her husband Héctor Fernando Maseda mourned and through tears observed that “the toll on our private lives has been that after eight years of forced separation, we didn’t even get eight months together. So I had one month of happiness for every year of separation.”

Nine years later and the circumstances surrounding Laura’s death remain unclear

Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet, who was a  First Degree Medical Specialist in Internal Medicine, before being fired from his profession by the government for his dissident views, observed the circumstances surrounding the death of  Laura Pollán and wrote an analysis in November 2011 titled “A MEDICAL ANALYSIS OF LAURA POLLAN’S PAINFUL, TRAGICAL AND UNNECESSARY DEATH” in which he concluded that ” There is concrete evidence that the closest relatives, friends and dissidents expressed suspicions about a possible assassination by the communist regime’s political police. Now, what has been proven over and over again is the stubborn nature of the regime at this sad, tragic and unnecessary death.”

Héctor Fernando Maseda marches with the Ladies in White following Laura's death in October 2011

Héctor Fernando Maseda marches with the Ladies in White following Laura’s death in October 2011

Nine years later writing in Marti Noticias, Janisset Rivero gives the following assessment of Laura’s untimely passing:

“A few weeks before her death, she suffered a terrible act of repudiation and was directly attacked, some suspect that she was inoculated with a virus or some substance. Everything is possible and it would not be the first time that the Castroites have used these methods to eliminate their enemies. The fact is that Laura became ill and had to be hospitalized and everything that happened after that moment is unknown. The diagnosis was never clear and her family was no longer able to touch or speak to her. They saw her, like Zapata in his last days, through a glass. The doctors who announced her death wore military boots and alongside them were the renowned political police officials who repressed her so many times.”

Laura is physically gone but the Ladies in White continue to gather and protest, Castro’s secret police continue to monitor and harass these courageous women, and the example of her life and activism remain a challenge to the Castro dictatorship.

From the Archives:

The Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2011

A Dissident’s Mysterious Death in Havana

Days after a beating by a mob, Laura Pollán fell ill and soon died. She was cremated two hours later.

By Mary Anastasia O’Grady

October 24, 2011

For more than eight years, the Castro regime tried its level best to silence Ladies in White leader Laura Pollán. Ten days ago Pollán did fall silent. She passed away, after a brief illness, in a Havana hospital.

Hospital officials initially said that she died of cardiac and respiratory arrest. But according to Berta Soler, the spokesperson for the Ladies in White in Havana, the death certificate says that Pollán succumbed to diabetes mellitus type II, bronchial pneumonia and a syncytial virus.

Since there was no independent medical care available to her and there was no autopsy, we are unlikely ever to find out what killed Pollán. We do know that although she was a diabetic with high blood pressure, both were under control and she did not need regular insulin shots. Indeed, she had been healthy only weeks before her death, according to friends and family. We also know that the longer she remained under state care, the sicker she got.

Not surprisingly, the Cuban opposition is suspicious about her demise, and their concerns deserve an airing if only because of the nature of the totalitarian regime. It learned its trade from communist Eastern Europe, where the practice of eliminating enemies while in state custody was refined.

Laura Pollán, leader of Cuba's Ladies in White, is roughed up by Castro's goons a week before she falls ill. EFE

Laura Pollán, leader of Cuba’s Ladies in White, is roughed up by Castro’s goons a week before she falls ill. EFE

Over the life of the Cuban dictatorship, suspicious deaths (most commonly heart attacks) of otherwise healthy individuals who were considered disloyal to the Castros are not unheard of. The most famous was José Abrantes, a former interior minister and confidant of Fidel, who had a falling out with his boss, was imprisoned, and though known for being fit died of a heart attack in his cell in 1991. More than one defector from inside the regime has claimed that Abrantes was murdered.

Pollán took up her cause when her husband, Hector Maseda, was arrested, along with 74 others, in an island-wide crackdown on dissent in March 2003. Seeking a way to resist the injustice, she joined other women whose loved ones were handed down long sentences in Cuba’s Black Spring. Together they organized a simple, peaceful act of disobedience: After attending Mass at St. Rita’s church in Havana, they marched in the street, dressed in white and carrying gladiolas. The group was peaceful and nonpolitical. But to the regime it was dangerous. Mobs were unleashed against it.

Beatings, detentions, intimidation and harassment of the group were fruitless. The Ladies repeatedly returned to their “counterrevolutionary” practices: Sunday Mass, silent processions, Wednesday women’s “literary teas” held in Ms. Pollán’s home, prayer vigils for the persecuted.

The movement took on enormous visual power, and when images of the ladies being attacked in the streets went viral, the dictatorship was humiliated. The Castros were forced to offer the Black Spring prisoners “liberation” through exile with their spouses.

Pollán and her husband refused. Instead she expanded the movement across the country and promised to convert it to a human rights organization open to all women. Speaking from the Guanajay prison as her condition was deteriorating, jailed former Cuban counterintelligence officer Ernesto Borges Pérez told the Hablemos Press that making public those objectives likely sealed her fate.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970204618704576645362368682524

NPR, October 17, 2011

Latin America

Cuba’s ‘Ladies In White’ Mourn Leader’s Death

October 17, 2011

Heard on All Things Considered

By Nick Miroff

Members of dissident group Ladies in White yell "Laura lives!" during their weekly march in front of Santa Rita church in Havana on Sunday. Franklin Reyes/AP

Members of dissident group Ladies in White yell “Laura lives!” during their weekly march in front of Santa Rita church in Havana on Sunday. Franklin Reyes/AP

The death of one of Cuba’s most prominent dissidents has come at an especially difficult time for Cuba’s small opposition movement.

Laura Pollan, the founder of the Ladies in White, died last Friday at age 63.

Her group carries out the only officially tolerated act of public protest in Cuba. It happens on Sundays, when the Ladies in White gather for mass at the Santa Rita church in Havana.

After a prayer, a few dozen of the women walk out and march in silence along Havana’s busy Fifth Avenue, dressed in white and carrying red gladiolas. This Sunday was the first time they were not led by Pollan, a former schoolteacher who became a fearless activist after her husband was jailed in a 2003 crackdown with 74 other dissidents.

Pollan organized the prisoners’ wives and loved ones into a potent symbol of peaceful opposition, often enduring physical and verbal abuse from government-organized mobs.

“Long live Laura Pollan,” the women chanted Sunday after their march, the first time they were also joined by men. At the head of the group was Hector Maseda, Pollan’s husband, carrying her portrait. He was freed this spring after eight years in prison.

“The toll on our private lives has been that after eight years of forced separation, we didn’t even get eight months together,” Maseda said, his eyes welling up. “So I had one month of happiness for every year of separation.”

Maseda was one of more than 100 prisoners freed by the Cuban government after leaders of the Catholic Church intervened last year to stop attacks on the Ladies in White. The prisoners’ release has left the group struggling to broaden its message beyond freedom for jailed dissidents, while facing new arrests and other reprisals in cities outside Havana.

Sunday’s march was the first time in memory that men have participated in any act of public protest without government interference. But the women said it was a one-time event to honor Pollan.

“I’m just one more ordinary Cuban,” said Silberio Portal Contreras, one of about 50 men who marched. “And if we don’t have the right to express ourselves, I’m going to stand as a man and a gentleman and say what I want.”

The leadership of the Ladies in White now falls to Berta Soler, who co-founded the group, which the Cuban government depicts as a tool of Washington and the anti-Castro exiles who back the women. Even though most of Cuba’s internationally recognized political prisoners are now free, Soler said the Ladies aren’t going away.

“The Ladies are going to continue this struggle,” Soler said. “My husband is out of jail now but there are other women who have joined us whose husbands are still behind bars, and we can’t just give up on them.”

As usual, ordinary Cubans appeared indifferent to Sunday’s march. A few passing cars honked, but no one spontaneously joined in. Despite the support for her abroad and a statement from the White House honoring her, surveys have found that few Cubans seemed to know of Pollan when she was alive. Her death wasn’t mentioned in Cuba’s state-run media.

https://www.npr.org/2011/10/17/141430018/cubas-ladies-in-white-mourn-leaders-death