Led by Laura Pollan, the Ladies in White group was set up by women in April 2003 in immediate reaction to the arrest of seventy-five defenders of human rights. In what has been dubbed the ‘Primavera Negra’ (Black Spring), these detainees were each condemned to jail sentences of up to thirty years. The Ladies ritually conclude their weekly attendance at church by marching through the streets of Havana, dressed in white and maintaining a poignant silence as they walk. One hundred and thirty prisoners were released after an agreement was reached in 2010, yet many of those liberated went immediately into exile. The ladies declare that there are more political prisoners being detained and so they continue to march and campaign for the wider issue of human rights.
On the evening of Saturday 17th March, sixteen of the group were arrested for an attempted protest in Havana. On Sunday morning, a further thirty-six women were detained as they carried out their usual march and further arrests have been made in other provinces of Cuba.
The arrests not only coincide with the anniversary of the Black Spring, but also with the week leading up to a visit from the Pope, due to take place between 26th and 28th March. The Ladies in White have requested a meeting with the Pope during his visit, with the intention of discussing human rights in Cuba but, so far, it has been denied that such a meeting is part of the Pope’s agenda during his short stay in the country. It is probable this is seen as devastatingly disappointing for the Ladies and their cause, as the Catholic Church was influential in the deal that secured the release of the Black Spring victims in 2010.
- The ladies march through Havana, led by the late Laura Pollan Image source :Globovisión on Flickr
In a country where the Government claims dissidents are being paid by the US, described by the Guardian as a ‘long-time ideological foe’, it is perhaps unsurprising that this is not the first time the Ladies have encountered malice from the government : past protests have also resulted in confrontations with police and arrests, such as on ‘the Day of Our Lady of Mercy’ in September 2011 and the arrests of three peaceful advocators of freedom – Ivonne Malleza Galano, Isabel Haydee Alvarez Mosqueda and the former’s husband – in November 2011, who were jailed in maximum security prisons for their protests.
Despite the interference and preventative action of the Cuban government, the Ladies’ efforts do not go unrecognised. Last year they won the US government’s Human Rights Defender Award and in 2005 the Sakharov prize – awarded annually by the European Parliament for courage in defending human rights and freedom of expression. Yet the Ladies were prohibited from attending the ceremony for the latter award, proving the extent of the repression they are fighting against. This shows that the worldwide recognition generated by these awards and the extensive media coverage of events such as this weekend are of immense importance : the Ladies have fought hard in the first leg, succeeding in raising awareness ; it now falls to the rest of the world to take the baton.