Las Damas De Blanco - The Ladies in White, an English translation of a book by Erika María del Carmen Lüters Gamboa

This is an English Translation (in progress) of the book, Las Damas de Blanco: las mujeres de los prisioneros de la Primavera Negra de Cuba (2006) The Ladies in White: the women of the Black Spring prisoners in Cuba - Written by Erika María del Carmen Lüters Gamboa (2006)  

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Written by Christoph Korneli and Gabriel C. Salvia

Among the numerous recent reminders in Argentina, on the thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of the bloodthirsty military dictatorship, some journalistic comments appeared that demonstrated the loneliness experienced by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in their weekly rounds protesting on behalf of their loved ones during those difficult years.

And almost twenty-five years later, other women under another dictatorship, the longest in Latin America, demanding the freedom of their husbands, fathers, brothers, nephews, and children, in Cuba. And these heroic Cuban women, just as those brave Argentine women did before, are winning the streets against the dictatorship. 

The Cuban journalist and poet Manuel Vázquez Portal, imprisoned in the repressive wave of March 2003 and released in 2005 with an extra-penal license, made a very emotional story about "The Ladies in White" in an article entitled "Explosion of lilies," in which he said: "They were seen arriving at the church: one, two, many.  At the end of Mass, when God had calmed their troubled hearts, they paraded down the avenue. 

It was Havana, Sunday, April 2003. It was spring, blackened by the cruel hand of the government, greening in the germinal steps of women who had just begun in the struggle. They would later be known as The Ladies in White. 

But at first the residents of the elegant neighborhood, the passers-by of the flowery boulevard, the motorists of refrigerated cars, tired of so many demonstrations organized by the government, did not even take a look at them. They persevered, already under the intimidating gaze of the Cuban political police. Who were these women dressed in white, many with their little children by their hands, who every Sunday went to the church of Santa Rita located on Fifth Avenue in Miramar? The neighbors of the elegant neighborhood, the passers-by of the flowery boulevard, and the motorists of refrigerated cars began to wonder.  "We are the wives, the mothers, the sisters of 75 honest, decorous, brave beings that the Cuban government has imprisoned for the sole crime of loving freedom." 

'They are crazy', they said: so much is the fear sown for almost half a century in the minds of the people... And the admiration grew. And respect grew. And solidarity grew. The neighbors of the elegant neighborhood looked out onto the balcony. Passers-by on the flowery boulevard stopped the passage. Motorists of refrigerated E 8 - Erika Lüters Gamboa cars slowed down. And they greeted them. And they gave them complimentary phrases. And they encouraged them... His prayers, his walks – at birth hardly a rumor – became gossip, excitement, news. And journalists came from the four corners of the earth. 

And it was learned in London and Paris, in New York and Brussels, in Rome and Toronto, that a group of women, defying Castro's repression – and military – paraded every Sunday, dressed in white, along the same route that the Maximo uses in his trips from his mansion to his offices. But above all it was known in Havana, in Mantua and Sibanucú, in Ranchuelo and Morón. People started by commenting on it, then praising it, then supporting it, if only with their sympathies. The repressive forces were stunned. They didn't know what to do in the face of such purity. Urgent memoranda were crossed. Emergent orders were given. And they say that one day even Maximus himself, heavily escorted -as always- went out to see that explosion of lilies pass by. The counteroffensive was organized by the government. They placed in the corner of the church a large operation, without any masking, with the malicious intention of intimidating. 

The political police visited and threatened the women. They interfered with the prisoners' phone calls with their families. They tried to bribe them with false promises of improvements for their prisoners. They intrigued with one and the other to divide them. They gave alms from extra visits and birthday gifts. They rolled out all sorts of insulting defamations against the most outstanding ones. They tried to intimidate the pastor of the church. They achieved nothing. 

The Ladies in White, haughty, dignified, loving, continued to march every Sunday. They had no bosses or political purposes. They defended only the right not to have their families cut off with the unjust imprisonment of their men... His radiance is due to his tenacity. Of them is the merit. They have been the protagonists of tributes and protests for their prisoners. On March 19, 2004, the first anniversary of the imprisonment of the 75, they marched to 15th and K streets, in Vedado, and there they shouted FREEDOM! FREEDOM! In front of the national heads of jails and prisons. 

Then, without fainting, with their feet in pain and their children almost dragged, they reached the distant municipality of Playa and handed over to the authorities of the National Assembly. They, on Father's Day, brought 75 gladioli to the gardens of the church that awaits them every Sunday. They meet every month in a Literary Tea and read letters that arrive from prisons, and poems that they dedicate to them and that they write, and exchange books that they then transfer to the Ladies in White - 9 sordid cells where their prisoners suffer. 

They have sent letters to national officials, prominent artists and writers around the world, officials of international organizations, and foreign governments. To obtain medical attention for their prisoners, they have been forced to stay, stay overnight and be evicted by political police forces in areas of the Civic Square – known as 'Revolution Square'. 

They have carried, with modesty and serenity, pinned on their blouses, stamps with the photos of their imprisoned relatives, and when someone - in the bus, full, suffocating; in the long, agonizing line of the market, in the dusty, bumpy streets- she asks, they answer with pride: 

-I am the wife of Héctor Maseda, engineer, freemason, independent journalist, president of the illegal Liberal Party... 

-I am the wife of Angel Moya, black, poor, defender of human rights ... 

-I am the wife of Alfredo Felipe Fuentes, economist, member of the National Council of the Varela Project... 

-I am the wife of Adolfo Fernández Saínz,  Simultaneous English-Spanish translator, freelance journalist... 

They respond, they explain, they break the silence that the Cuban propaganda machine and repressive forces want to dump on the crime of having imprisoned 75 political opponents and independent journalists... 

They are The Ladies in White. 

They do not appear on Cuban television. They are not counted in Cuban newspapers. They are not heard on Cuban radio. However, they are an undeniable presence in the city. They walk in the cellar. In blackouts. Under the rain without an umbrella. In the midday sun. That is why they have become close, acquaintances, and relatives. Already the people say: There go the Ladies in White. 

They have made unquestionable truth those words that José Martí, from his immortality, wrote, perhaps glimpsing them: 'The campaigns of the peoples are only weak when in them the heart of a woman is not enlisted; But when the woman trembles and helps, when the shy and quiet woman in her natural, encourages and applauds, when the cultured and virtuous woman anoints the work with the honey of her affection, the work is invincible. 

And invincible are the Ladies in White. 

The Maxim knows this." This book on "The Ladies in White" presents the life stories of a representative number of these Cuban women, relatives of prisoners of conscience, whose stories deserve to be known and their claims supported. For obvious reasons, the interviews had to be conducted by telephone and not on the island, because as is their custom, the Cuban dictatorship would not have granted the author a visa to carry out her journalistic work in Cuba. 

The wives of Cuban prisoners of conscience receive important expressions of solidarity from abroad. Currently, entities from different parts of the world, parliamentarians and university students, carry out humanitarian campaigns to support the relatives of Cuban political prisoners in various ways, including economic aid. 

That is the only way of subsistence for those who have a loved one imprisoned in Cuba for political reasons, because as can be read in the testimonies of this book the reprisals are not limited to the imprisoned opponents, but also to the dismissal of their relatives from jobs by a totalitarian dictatorship that holds the monopoly of the labor supply. 

For this reason, humanitarian exile groups, such as the "Planted to Freedom and Democracy in Cuba", a working group made up of political prisoners who served long sentences in Cuba's prisons during the 60s and 70s, have been the depositories of the administration of the campaign "Voices for freedom".  An effort by Cuban exile organizations and businessmen has secured sponsorship for Cuban political prisoners and their families. 

Recalling at the beginning of this presentation that the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina found the indifference of the majority of their compatriots to the repression of an authoritarian dictatorship, and taking into account the difficulty of overcoming fear in a totalitarian regime like that of Cuba, the solidarity of democrats around the world with "The Ladies in White" is invaluable. 

From the Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation we hope to contribute with the second edition of this book, to a greater regional commitment with Cuban democrats, adding more and more demands that demand the freedom of those who suffer sentences under the dictatorship of Fidel Castro, accused of crimes that in any free country are fundamental rights. That is a duty of all honest defenders of human rights, but especially of those who suffered terrible dictatorships in their countries and who found in international solidarity invaluable support in the face of repression.

Written by José Miguel Vivanco, Director Regional de las Americas Human Rights Watch 

Every Sunday, the Ladies in White attend mass in a church in Havana and make a tour of the surrounding streets in absolute silence, carrying photos of their relatives with the number of years they were sentenced to prison. They are united by a common goal: to march peacefully demanding the freedom of their husbands, fathers, children, brothers, and nephews. 

In many countries, solidarity networks are formed between women whose relatives are in prison. In Cuba, however, the Ladies in White also symbolize a demand for freedom from those who are oppressed by the regime's repressive machinery. Family members for whom they are fighting were unjustly detained during the period of greatest repression Cuba has ever known in recent years. 

In the early hours of the early morning hours of 18 March 2003, state security forces arrested political dissidents, independent journalists, human rights defenders, independent librarians, and labor rights promoters. These arrests marked the beginning of the repressive campaign. Security forces also raided homes across the island, confiscating computers, fax machines, typewriters, and personal documents. From April 3 to 7 of the same year, in a chain of summary trials, the detainees were prosecuted for violating criminal offenses that prohibit conduct that weakens the socialist system or favors the US economic embargo. A total of 75 people were convicted and received prison sentences ranging from 6 to 20 years. With the exception of 14 detainees who were released in 2004 on humanitarian grounds, the rest remain imprisoned to this day. Raúl Rivero, a poet, and journalist, and Marta Beatriz Roque, a prominent independent economist, are among 14 dissidents released. 

The Ladies in White emerged during the celebration of Mother's Day in 2003, when a group of women had to assume the consequences of the arbitrary detention of their relatives. The group formed spontaneously; Today it has the participation of women from all over the country, who profess different religious creeds and have different political positions but share a common cause: to achieve the immediate freedom of their relatives. 

Despite not talking about religion or politics, or perhaps precisely because of that, the Ladies in White continued their meetings and gained growing recognition in Cuba and abroad. The group was one of three recipients of the prestigious 2005 Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded each year by the European Parliament to recognize those fighting for the protection of human rights, the promotion of democracy, international cooperation, and the defense of the rule of law. The Cuban government, however, in a reaction consistent with its repressive policies, did not allow representatives of the group to travel to France to receive the award in December 2005. 

To this day, the Cuban government continues to relentlessly implement its repressive legislation that denies Cubans the exercise of civil and political rights, including the basic rights of freedom of expression, association, assembly, movement, and the right to due process. The denial of such rights is in legislation, specifically in the Penal Code, which serves as a legal basis for suppressing peaceful and legitimate activities of opposition to the government. For example, the code criminalizes so-called enemy propaganda, the dissemination of "unauthorized information" and insults to patriotic symbols. The government also arrogates to itself the power to stop and order surveillance of people who have committed no crime, using laws that sanction the individual deemed "dangerous" and allow for "official warning." 

In the name of the revolutionary legal order, the intelligence and security apparatus threatens dissidents, monitors them, and orders house arrest, short-term detention, and restrictions on movement. The courts, which are part of the regime's repressive bureaucracy, operate without respect for the right to a fair trial, restrict the right to defense and violate all due process guarantees that defendants should have under international human rights law. 

The observation of the human rights situation is not allowed as a legitimate activity, but is considered treason or an attack on Cuban sovereignty. In fact, no local human rights group is recognized by the domestic legal system. Nor are international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, allowed to send fact-finding missions to Cuba. Cuba remains one of the few countries in the world, and the only one in the Western Hemisphere, to deny the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prisons. 

Faced with this situation, the United States opted, several decades ago, for a policy of economic, political and diplomatic isolation, to pressure the Cuban regime. It was time to assess whether the United States embargo on Cuba was the most appropriate mechanism to get out of the current situation and thereby improve the state of human rights. 

For some of Cuba's most prominent dissidents such as Raúl Rivero, Héctor Palacios Ruiz and Oswaldo Payá, the embargo contributes to Fidel Castro's cause and not to their own. By being indiscriminate—rather than targeting specific targets—it allows the Cuban government to shift responsibility for the suffering of the people to the United States. By isolating the people, it facilitates the government's control over what Cubans hear, see, and know. Moreover, with the rest of the world's staunch opposition to the embargo, the Cuban government has succeeded in dividing the international community and this leads, paradoxically, to a reduction (and not an increase) of international pressure on Fidel Castro. 

It is clear, then, that the indiscriminate embargo against Cuba has not achieved its objectives. Refusing to listen to those who risk their personal freedom for freedom in Cuba is inadmissible. This would be similar to the United States having taken steps to promote freedom in the former Soviet Union, without taking into account the views of Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walessa or Vaclav Havel. 

For dissidents to win a space that allows them to fight for change within Cuba, multilateral pressure carefully directed at the government and not the Cuban people is needed. A middle ground must be found between, at one end, unconditional cooperation with the government and at the other, the policy of total isolation that the United States has unilaterally promoted for decades (which, in the end, favors Fidel Castro). Fidel Castro's greatest fear is not the continuation of the embargo, or even its lifting; but the possibility for the United States to agree with its allies in Latin America and Europe on a common strategy to protect and promote the fundamental rights of the Cuban people. A united international community would have far greater political and moral authority vis-à-vis the Cuban government than a divided one, as it has been until now. An effective multilateral strategy should involve concerted multi-actors. 

For example, the democratic governments of Latin America should speak out strongly denouncing political repression in Cuba and stop supporting that government's participation in international bodies, as they have done in the discredited UN Commission on Human Rights. Its diplomatic missions in Havana should meet constantly with Cuban dissidents and human rights defenders. European democracies, for their part, should impose on Cuban authorities the same targeted sanctions, including visa denial and asset confiscation, that they have imposed on authorities of other repressive governments, such as those of Myanmar and Zimbabwe. 

Finally, given that Cuban workers in foreign companies continue to be hired and paid by the government, without the right to organize freely to form a union, bargain collectively or strike, both European and Latin American governments should grant licenses to invest in Cuba only if there are guarantees of respect for labor rights. 

We cannot sit back and resign ourselves to a reality like this. No one should have any illusions about the character of the Cuban government. 

We cannot romanticize any aspect of this cruel system, or in any way justify the abuses committed by Fidel Castro. However, without adequate pressure from the international community, Cubans will not be able to free themselves from this totalitarian regime and move forward, as so many countries in this hemisphere and Eastern Europe have done, towards a democratic regime that respects fundamental rights. 

The Ladies in White:
A great supportive family

They are not an organization. They have neither a president nor a secretary,  and there are no formal commitments between them. They are all the same and the only thing that unites them is the pain of being separated from their loved ones: husbands, fathers, children, brothers, or nephews. 

Their characteristic is to wear entirely white every Sunday when they go to the church of Santa Rita de Casia in Havana. After mass they tour about eight blocks in silence and each one carries the photo of their loved one with the years of imprisonment to which he is condemned. 

Sometimes they are a larger number, depending on the date. Sometimes only a few make the tour. But their goal is always the same: to march peacefully asking for the freedom of their relatives. The idea of meeting and supporting each other came on Mother's Day 2003, confronted with their newly incarcerated husbands and relatives. 

The group formed spontaneously. Laura Pollán, one of the first to participate, and who somehow brings the others together for practical reasons, says that this union has helped them to maintain hope, to support each other, and accompany each other in the difficult trances through which each of them has to live from time to time. 

The most "known", especially for the international press, are those who live in Havana, but there are Ladies in White in all Cuban provinces or towns where there is a detainee from the wave of repression of the Spring 2003. 

Laura emphasizes that the plurality of the group is very large: "Here people participate who support the Varela Project, of the Assembly to Promote Civil Society, there are orthodox, liberals, of all religious creeds, of all thoughts." However, politics and religion are the only topics that are not discussed between them. 

The meetings are held on the 18th of each month, often at Laura's house, and consist of a literary tea. Each one contributes something. Letters from their husbands, poems from detainees, or pieces of world literature that serve them and encourage them to continue waiting. 

"In the course of these almost three years, as in all human beings, there are ups and downs. There are times when some wives have come with a certain health situation of their husband, of some rape that they have suffered. They have come very depressed, among all as a big family that we are, we try to encourage, encourage them, comfort them. There are times we have smiled, other times we have cried together," summarizes Laura. 

Since they began their demonstrations they have experienced problems; they have been frightened and repudiated. 

"State security has tried to blackmail us through our children, they have visited them. Sometimes, they have been touching us one by one, at the church's exit. There are many ways. A lot of subtleties," he explains. But despite everything, Laura affirms that they will not bend them. "They have not succeeded, nor will they succeed as long as one of our prisoners remains in jail," he says with great conviction.

And it is that during all this time they have become strong. Before they were forced to live this situation, most of the Ladies in White were simple mothers, wives or sisters who lived normal lives. No frights. 

The experience has enriched them as women, has made them share the pain and uneasiness, and above all, has made them become supportive. 

And that solidarity is expressed massively with the Ladies who arrive from the province. For them the situation is doubly difficult. The island's communications and means of transport are very poor and they must overcome many obstacles to get anything they need, both for themselves and for their husbands. 

As there are no churches of Santa Rita in all of Cuba, those who live in the province come together in other parishes, but the idea is the same: to strengthen each other and lift up those who begin to lose strength and hope of reuniting with their loved ones. 

And in Cuba they do not receive the slightest recognition from the government.  The recognition came from abroad. In October 2005 they received the Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, an award given by the European Parliament to those who stand out for the defense of human rights, the promotion of democracy and freedom of expression. 

The news filled them with joy and they celebrated by going to church with a bouquet of flowers, even though it was not Sunday. Among them they designated those who would go to Strasbourg to receive the prize. In the end, they did not obtain authorization from the regime to leave the island.


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