CubaBrief: Laura Pollán at 76 – Remembering the Cuban dissident leader’s legacy.

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)

Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, February 13, 1948 – October 14, 2011

Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, was born 76 years ago on February 13, 1948, and today we remember her, how she became a dissident leader, and her continuing legacy.

Cuba had undergone a Spring that began in the weeks prior to Pope John Paul II’s visit to the island nation in January 1998. Christmas returned after being “initially” banned in 1969 for the 10 million ton sugar harvest campaign. It remained forbidden in Cuba for the next 27 years, and returned as a gesture to the visiting Pontiff. Over the next five years Cuban civil society grew and spread across the island.

This Cuban spring came to an end on March 18, 2003 with a massive crackdown on dissidents by the Castro regime’s secret police. Over a 100 were rounded up, but 75 would be subjected to political show trials and sentenced to long prison terms ranging up to 28 years in prison.

What drew the dictatorship’s wrath? Some had organized a petition drive, legally recognized within the existing constitution; others were independent journalists or human rights activists. They had mobilized tens of thousands of Cubans for change.

Claudia Márquez Linares, Blanca Reyes Castañón, and Miriam Leiva Viamonte led a freedom march in 2003.

The dictatorship believed it had decapitated the Cuban opposition, but they were wrong. A new dissident movement that marked a before and after in Cuban history arose.

The Ladies in White were founded by Claudia Márquez Linares, Blanca Reyes Castañón, Dolia Leal Francisco, Miriam Leiva Viamonte, Gisela Delgado Sablón, Yolanda Huerga Cedeño, Marcela Sánchez Santa Cruz, and Berta de los Angeles Soler Fernandez, whose loved ones were among those jailed in the March 2003 crackdown.

They reached out to the other wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the 75 prisoners of conscience jailed in March 2003, which included their loved ones and they carried out a sustained nonviolent campaign that after eight years obtained the freedom of their loved ones.

On March 30, 2003, this group of women, that came to be known as the Damas de Blanco [Ladies in White], visited the Santa Rita Church in Havana, Cuba for the first time. Marti Noticias published an extensive article and the above short documentary on the Ladies in White on March 30, 2023. Laura Inés Pollán Toledo had not yet joined the movement, but did soon after.

The regime’s strategy was to release and exile the husbands of key leaders of the Ladies in White, and have these women join them abroad, with no possibility of returning to Cuba. Claudia Márquez Linares, Blanca Reyes Castañón, and Yolanda Huerga Cedeño were among this group that saw their husbands released over the course of 2004, and went into exile.

Their departure created a vacuum in leadership that Laura Inés Pollán Toledo soon filled. Laura had been a school teacher, before her husband, Héctor Fernando Maseda Gutiérrez, was subjected to a political show trial and jailed for his independent journalism in the March 2003 crackdown. He was one of what would come to be known as “the group of the seventy five.” Amnesty International recognized them all as prisoners of conscience.

This drove her break with the dictatorship, and Laura’s decision to join the Ladies in White.

Despite the changes in leadership, the Ladies in White carried out a sustained nonviolent campaign that after eight years obtained the freedom of their loved ones. The first large group of prisoners was released in November 2010, and the last of the group of 75 were freed in March 2011.

Laura was greatly admired both inside and outside of Cuba for her leadership of the Ladies in White movement. She, and the group of women she led, nonviolently challenged the Castro regime in the streets of Havana initially, and eventually across the island.

She did not disband the Ladies in White when her husband returned home in February 2011. Laura recognized that the laws had not changed, that prisoners of conscience remained behind bars.

Mary O’Grady in The Wall Street Journal on October 24, 2011 reported that Pollán instead of disbanding sought to 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 Laura 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.”

U.S. journalist Tracey Eaton interviewed Laura’s widower Héctor Maseda on Dec. 15, 2011, about three months after her death, and he held the Castro regime responsible for her death, but admitted that he did not have the evidence to back up his allegation.

Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet MD, who was a first degree medical specialist in internal medicine, before being fired from his post by the government for his dissident views, examined the circumstances surrounding the death of  Laura Pollán and wrote an analysis in November 2011 titled “A MEDICAL ANALYSIS OF LAURA POLLAN’S PAINFUL, TRAGIC AND UNNECESSARY DEATH.” In it he concluded: “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.”

The Ladies in White continue to be subjected to brutal repression, and four women of this movement are today jailed in Cuba for calling for the release of political prisoners, and nonviolently defending human rights.

Ladies in White imprisoned today in Cuba: Tania Echevarría, Saylí Navarro, Sissi Abascal and Aymara Nieto.

Laura is not forgotten, and her memory and example continue to animate the Ladies in White, and their current leader and founding member Berta Soler Fernandez.

Thirteen years later, and the wisdom of Laura Pollán’s 2011 analysis, that there would be new prisoners of conscience until the laws were changed, is confirmed in the over one thousand prisoners of conscience imprisoned today, and a dictatorship that changed the penal code for the worse, to increase punishments for those exercising fundamental and internationally recognized human rights.

Berta Soler Fernandez ,current Ladies in White leader., and political prisoner Sayli Navarro address IACHR.

Human Rights Foundation, March 21, 2023

Introduction

Authoritarianism is on the rise globally. Historically, women have been at the forefront of movements advocating for democracy and basic human rights. That hasn’t changed. Dictators have responded to these pro-democracy movements with harassment, violence, and arbitrary detention. Nevertheless, women continue to stand up against authoritarian regimes.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, the Human Rights Foundation is highlighting the contributions of women activists and human rights defenders to pro-democracy movements. Throughout this series, we explore the incredible stories of women who took the lead to challenge repression.

Women at the Forefront of Democracy:

Promoting Freedom in Latin America

By Luciana Talamas, HRF Legal & Policy Intern, and Mariana Atala, HRF Legal & Policy Intern

Women in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua have become the face of resistance against the dictatorial regimes ruling their countries in recent years. Despite constant harassment, threats, and violence, these women have shown remarkable resilience in their pursuit of democracy, justice, and the liberation of prisoners of conscience. Through consistent advocacy and activism, they have mobilized their communities and garnered international attention to the regimes’ abhorrent human rights abuses. 

In Venezuela, Lilian Tintori has shown immense resilience in her struggle for democracy and human rights. Her husband, Leopoldo López, a prominent Venezuelan opposition leader, was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison in 2014 on trumped-up charges of inciting violence during widespread anti-dictatorship protests. 

Tintori refused to remain silent, becoming a vocal advocate for her husband’s release and the rights of all prisoners of conscience in Venezuela. In 2015, Tintori met with then-Vice President Joe Biden, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty, and several UN officials, all of whom publicly called for the release of her husband and all other Venezuelan prisoners of conscience. 

The Maduro regime retaliated. Less than 48 hours after the meetings, several armed and masked officers broke into López’s jail cell, forcibly moving him to an isolated cell with degrading conditions. In 2017, while she was four months pregnant with their third child, Tintori was barred from leaving Venezuela before a European tour during which she planned to meet with several heads of state.

In Nicaragua, prominent journalist Berta Valle faced similar challenges. In 2021, her husband, Felix Maradiaga, was among seven opposition presidential candidates detained on bogus charges of terrorism and conspiracy. It took 84 days for Valle and her family to receive proof of Maradiaga’s life, as he was held incommunicado in horrid conditions.

While in exile and less than two months after her husband’s arrest, the Nicaraguan National Police and Public Ministry opened an investigation into Valle under the controversial Law 1055. She was accused of being a “traitor to the homeland” because of her international advocacy for her husband and others like him. 

Before her husband’s arrest, Valle was a prominent advocate for democracy in Latin America. In 2016, the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) nominated her to represent the capital city of Managua in the National Assembly. The subservient Nicaraguan Supreme Court disqualified the party’s electoral coalition, preventing Valle from running. And since 2019, Valle has led Voces en Libertad, a nonprofit organization promoting cooperation among Nicaragua’s independent journalists who fled the country following the brutal crackdown of the 2018 nationwide pro-democracy protests.

Like Valle, Cuba’s Berta Soler has shown the utmost resilience in the face of a brutal dictatorship. On Feb. 12, Soler was arrested for the 39th time in less than a year for exposing the Cuban regime’s human rights violations. She is the leader of the Ladies in White movement, a group of over 400 female family members of current and former prisoners of conscience. The Ladies in White gather every Sunday in public spaces, dressed in white, to protest for the freedom of prisoners of conscience and demand democracy and respect for human rights. 

The Ladies in White movement began in 2003, after the Black Spring crackdown on political dissent. Soler’s husband, Angel Moya, was among the 75 members of the opposition group, “The Assembly to Promote Civil Society,” who were arrested and sentenced to 20 years.

For almost two decades, the Ladies in White, with Soler as their leader, have been subjected to repression by the Cuban regime. Soler’s family has been constantly harassed and her peaceful protests are often met with vicious police violence. On several occasions, state security officers have hit her and other members of the movement with closed fists, twisting their wrists, intending to break their bones. The regime’s repression against Soler and the Ladies in White has intensified in the past couple of years, as they demand for the release of prisoners of conscience from the protests on July 11, 2021 – the largest pro-democracy demonstrations in the country since the 1990s. Despite all this, Soler is determined to stay in her country and promote democratic freedoms from within.

The unwavering activism of Tintori, Valle, and Soler has gotten positive results. After spending more than a year at the embassy, López was eventually granted asylum by the Spanish government; he left Venezuela in October 2020 and reunited with his family. Valle’s tireless promotion of democratic freedoms and human rights resulted in the release of her husband and 221 other prisoners of conscience who were forced into exile in February. The Ladies in White movement contributed to the conditional release of Soler’s husband and the 74 other Black Spring prisoners of conscience after seven years in jail. And in the last year, the movement has gained several new members to help call for the release of the 11J prisoners of conscience.

Tintori, Valle, and Soler won’t stop any time soon. Maradiaga reunited with his wife, but is now stateless after being stripped of his citizenship and assets by the Nicaraguan regime. Berta Soler continues to be arrested and harassed by the Cuban dictatorship. And although she can’t return to Venezuela, Tintori supports her husband’s work and the Venezuelan pro-democracy movement from abroad. Their fight continues, and their stories remind us of the power of pro-democracy movements — and the important role women play in them.

Conclusion

Around the world, women have long been at the forefront of movements calling for democracy, freedom, and human rights. From Thailand to Madagascar, Nicaragua to Belarus, and Saudi Arabia to Cuba, women have shown that they are capable of leading the change despite threats and challenges. Undeniably, democracy without women is impossible. We stand in solidarity with the women who are leading these movements globally.

https://hrf.org/women-at-the-forefront-of-democracy-promoting-freedom-in-latin-america/