May 24, 2013
Laura, so very Laura
Ladies in White leader leaves mark even in death
Eight years ago Laura Pollán was a schoolmarm who lived with her husband Héctor Maseda, leader of the illegal Cuban Liberal Party. Despite all the vicissitudes of living in a country where the freedom of assembly is penalized, the family tried to lead a normal life in its small house on Neptuno street. But early one morning several heavy knocks on the door heralded that their lives were about to change irreversibly. After an exhaustive search, Maseda was jailed and sentenced to a prison term of 20 years on charges of endangering national security. His crime — imagining a different Cuba, opposing the authorities politically and writing his opinions. A total of 75 opposition leaders went on trial that gloomy March of 2003 which will stay forever in our national history as the Black Spring. Male chauvinist logic suggested that the wives of those arrested dissidents would stay at home wailing their grief while their husbands served long sentences in faraway prisons.
The Cuban government counted on striking this blow against the opposition as serving to dissuade other restless citizens from joining the ranks of the rebellious. They also believed that those wives, mothers and daughters would keep quiet in the hope that silencing their protest would help their loved ones more than publicly denouncing the horror. But like all political calculations made from the arrogance of power, it went wrong.
Thus were the Ladies in White born, a female group peacefully pressing their demand for the release of all prisoners of conscience. At first it seemed a tiny and loose-knit movement, given the kilometres of distance separating one woman from another. But their indignation glued them together and they grew into this movement clad in white and carrying gladioli in their hands. Among them one voice stood out — a tiny, blue-eyed women who taught Spanish and literature to a class of teenagers. Laura Pollán started to emerge as the spokeswoman and leader of this apolitical group, especially concentrating on human rights issues and the release of family members. In a country where political discourse has always been polarized, the Ladies in White were a curiosity from their very inception. Instead of a party charter, they unfurled their desire to embrace their loved ones — instead of rallying around a doctrine, they took their stand on ties of family affection which were beyond debate. They gained a lot of sympathy from the common people of the island and that provoked, of course, a smear campaign and insults from the authorities against them.
If any group has been denigrated to excess in the Cuban media, it has been the Ladies in White. Every kind of media campaign has been aimed against them — from the experimental to the intimidatory and even repudiation rallies outside Laura Pollán’s front door, her highest accolade. State media reporters called them the “Ladies in Green” in allusion to the dollar bills they received from Cuban exiles abroad in order to help feed their jailed husbands. A curious irony — a government which has drained the national treasury on behalf of every type of madcap political scheme begrudged every cent which could reach the needy hands of these women. Even when the leader of this peaceful movement entered an intensive care ward, the state press continued to denigrate her. With severe pains in her joints, gasping for air and generally falling to bits, Laura Pollán was hospitalized in extremely serious condition in one of those Havana hospitals where the medical talent is as abundant as electric power is lacking. In the face of the gravity of her condition, her family was consulted as to whether the patient could be transferred to a luxurious clinic reserved for the military but she had already warned before losing consciousness under sedation: “I’m staying in the people’s hospital.” And there she died after it took more than five days to diagnose her case as dengue fever, in a country which suffered an intense epidemic of that virus a few months ago.
Although newspapers around the world are now giving the news of Laura Pollán’ death, Granma and the rest of our drab national press stays silent. Such a mute reaction might be due to the lack of grandeur of a government which does not know how to express its condolences over the death of an adversary — never, ever have they been known to halt the aggression for a moment to express such condolences. But so much silence could also stem from the awe they felt towards this tiny Spanish teacher, a fear which now sticks in their throats. The leader of the Ladies in White is dead and nobody will ever be able to hold gladioli again without thinking of Laura Pollán.