The Message of Cuba’s Ladies in White
October 25, 2011
Haroldo Dilla Alfonso
HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 25 — The Ladies in White have always forged ahead
accompanied by tragedy.
Even when racking up victories, which have been many and unprecedented,
they have done so under the most blatant repression, physical assaults
and defamation by pen-wielding toads. But what’s more tragic has been
the silence — either out of complicity or fear — by those who are
usually not silent.
All this has been tragic, because with their walks through the streets
of Havana, they have excited the feeling of the sublime – and like no
one had in decades.
But now at a particularly tragic moment they have lost Laura Pollan, an
unquestionable and necessary leader, as are all leaders in the first
moments when movements and organizations enter the political arena.
What’s more, Pollan’s death occurred at a time that the Ladies in White
were redefining their place on the Cuban political scene. The dilemma is
familiar: the release of the political prisoners, including all the
relatives of the Ladies in White, ceased to be the reason for the
movement. They had also benefitted from an agreement of tolerance
reached between the Catholic hierarchy and the Raul Castro government.
This raised the problem of redefining goals, which for now remain
focused on the release of political prisoners, of whom there are now few
and who in most cases have against them criminal records that are much
more controversial than those of the prisoners who were released earlier
Otherwise they can focus their attention on the arrests of activists,
but these are for short and intermittent periods. It is an abhorrent
practice but one that is difficult to mobilize energies around over the
Given this, there have emerged many positions as to what these brave
women should do. At one extreme (from the tabernacles of the government)
has come the demand that they dismantle and demobilize, arguing that
they have now accomplished their goal.
At the other extreme are those calling for greater politicization of the
movement; urging these women to take up other issues and to approach
traditional dissident groups.
Obviously I would not dare to suggest — from my comfortable life in
exile — what the Ladies in White should do. That would be political
pedantry and a moral dereliction.
I would only dare to point out, as a unassuming analyst, why they have
done things so well, and how they could continue doing them well by
using the same issues and resources that they have used so far (though
of course with no pretensions of being a part of a debate that takes
place on the role and the paths of organized opposition in Cuba).
Three traits have marked the strength and originality of the Ladies in
– The first of these traits has been the modesty of its members. They
have never sought the cameras or adopted commercial poses when the
reporters showed up on their own. They never considered themselves
pristine moral pieces of politics. There was no mysticism in them, nor
did they accept comparisons with heroes. The images we have of them is a
line of women marching with flowers on a path that they know, or those
of the same women attacked by mobs of thugs, their faces contorted by
rage and pain. Except for two or three members appointed by the group,
almost no one spoke. They only sang of freedom as they marched. And
although they did this almost whispering, the whole world heard them.
– The second indomitable feature was the realization of their demands:
the release of their relatives and other prisoners for political
reasons. Unlike the usual opposition, accustomed to grand proclamations
calling for unity and programs for total change, their paucity must have
seemed a sign of their lacking any ambition. But it was truly an example
of how to implement good policy — that which is applied to win and not
just to witness — against a totalitarian state like Cuba. In fact they
were the only group that forced the Cuban government to give in, even
though the government has done so through a deplorable maneuver, with
the help of the Spanish government and the Catholic hierarchy (Here I’m
not evaluating the intentions the on this point).
– And finally, the Ladies in White based their strength on their own
frailties. Suppressing women who were fighting for their families (many
of those Ladies approaching their senior years) involved an ethical cost
that was too high for law enforcement agents and government spokesmen.
Although the Cuban government has never lacked hatchet men ready for
anything, even in the worst of moments indecency has its limit.
Frankly, I believe that to imagine the Ladies in White reading
proclamations about elections and a multiparty system, is to distort and
condemn them to a political vacuum. To ask them to do so is foolish and
inconsiderate. I prefer to imagine them recovering their strong points
in a sensitive and humane way as their focus on the prison population,
an area in which Cuba — sadly enough — stands in a “high” position
The Cuban prison population is very high. In 2004 an independent agency
estimated it to have some 297 prisoners per every 100,000 inhabitants,
which placed the country in a “three-digit club” led by the United
States and Russia. This would have totaled something like 35,000 prisoners.
Another source, the British International Center for Prison Studies,
stated that in 2006 there were 487 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants,
equaling something like 55,000 inmates. Other less credible sources
speak of 100,000 prisoners or almost 1 percent the population.
Because the government does not allow free and objective inspections,
and since the press does not and cannot inquire, we can only approach
the situation of prisons by anecdotal evidence from those affected. But
even if we reduced the critical mass of these accounts (assuming that
the punished will always carry with them obvious resentments) we still
have a shocking picture of poor nutrition, overcrowding, sub-standard
medical care, physical punishment, corruption and abuses of all kinds.
Often directed against individuals, we must recall that they didn’t have
in their favor clean and fair criminal proceedings.
Proposal for the new situation
If the Ladies in White in this new situation were capable of channeling
demands for decriminalization, a transparent justice system accessible
to everyone and a more humane prison system — all of which are essential
for getting Cuba out of the infamous “three digit club” — I think not
only would this make a greater contribution to Cuban society, but they
would also force the Cuban government to reconsider its repressive
plans. In addition their former allies and very cautious allies would
narrow the gap between them and the Ladies.
But above all, we need to think about what it would mean if they were
joined in this crusade for a better Cuba by at least a part of the tens
of thousands of families who have members imprisoned. This would have
meaning by virtue of its political impact inside Cuba as well as for its
impact on the socialization of new values ??of solidarity on the basis
of the dignity of Cuban men and women.
Whatever happens, no matter what the future course of the Ladies in
White might be, there will always be a space for them in life,
particularly the unfailing Laura Pollan. For many of us they showed a
higher horizon – the criteria, as Marti noted, of true greatness.
I take this opportunity presented by this article to testify my respect
and admiration for them.
Published originally in Spanish by Cubaencuentro.