HUMAN RIGHTS DAY
Support Cuba’s courageous Ladies in White
BY THOMAS J. DODD
Today marks International Human Rights Day. It’s also the day that courageous Cuban women will be recognized for their tireless efforts at getting their loved ones released from prison. Las Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, are the wives, daughters and sisters of Cuban political prisoners arrested in March 2003 during the “Cuban Spring.”
Next week they will be awarded the European Parliament’s highest honor for human rights — the Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. This is the second time in four years that a Cuban organization is being honored with the prize. In 2002, it was awarded to Oswaldo Payá and the Varela Project, a citizen-based initiative that seeks a referendum enabling Cubans to decide their futures.
I recently visited Cuba and met some of the Ladies in White and Payá. The Ladies in White I met were two out of five selected to represent the group in Strasbourg if the Cuban government allows them to leave the country to receive the Sakharov Prize in person. [As of Friday afternoon, the Cuban government had still not granted them persmission to leave the country, the Spanish news agency EFE reported from Havana.] These courageous women also explained to me the daily struggles they go through providing for their families without the support of their husbands and the legal obstacles they have faced trying to use the Cuban judicial system to obtain freedom for their spouses.
During more than eight hours with Payá, I learned about his newest initiative, Common Ground, which seeks to gain input from other opposition groups around the island about their common goals and vision for a peaceful transition in Cuba. More than 70 representatives of human-rights and opposition groups participated in the Common Ground survey.
The Cuban National Assembly has still refused to publicly debate the Varela Project, which according to the Cuban constitution should have been addressed by the legislature after Payá and fellow organizers submitted more than 25,000 names calling for a referendum on basic human rights. The Cuban government’s only response so far has been to jail more than 50 Varela Project organizers, the husbands, fathers and brothers of the Ladies in White.
A poll recently conducted in Cuba by the independent Spanish non-governmental organization, Solidaridad Española con Cuba (Spanish Solidarity With Cuba), offered the first survey made there in the last four decades. It reveals that most Cuban citizens support the Varela Project, which proposes changes within the law, not violence.
Most Cubans, according to this survey, believe the National Assembly should discuss these issues. Those who were interviewed also have positive views toward Payá and other leading opposition figures. They say that more changes would positively affect their current situation.
Payá and the Ladies in White have no voice in Cuba, where the state-run media control all television and radio. This is why support and solidarity from the international community is crucial in giving a voice to these courageous individuals and their colleagues and loved ones in prison.
Thomas J. Dodd was U.S. ambassador to Uruguay from 1993 to 1997 and to Costa Rica from 1997 to 2001.