The Ladies in White, those of us from Havana, met in the entrance hall of the Villa Marista. We decided to go to the Church of Santa Rita on March 30, 2003 – Saint Rita is the advocate of impossible cases. We decided we would all go dressed in white because white clothing signifies peace, purity, love, and justice. At first we were going to wear something black because the Leonor Perez Mothers’ Committee met there and they wore white blouses with black skirts or pants in the summer.
[Villa Marista is a prison in Havana run by the Ministry of Interior. Many political prisoners have been incarcerated there. The Leonor Perez Mothers’ Committee is an opposition group established in 1992 that advocates for the release of political prisoners. It is named for the mother of Cuba’s national hero, Jose Marti.]
We then thought there was no need to wear black if the pain was inside of us. All of us wore white or carried a flower. The Cuban national flower is the white ginger or mariposa but since it is not always in season, we chose the gladiolus, which is always in season in Cuba. Besides, the gladiolus represents the family as it is composed of a large spike with various flower buds. One dies and another blooms. It is never ending. We related it to the family. It is our weapon.
At first, it was the 25 or 27 families from Havana that attended. The other families of the Group of 75 from the provinces became aware and they began to join us in Havana. We participated in Masses, praying for the intercession of the Saint, advocating for freedom and respect of our loved ones’ human rights. At first, we would walk along 5th Avenue in silence. The street is in Miramar, along the beach in Havana. Walking in silence, with a gladiolus in our hands, to demand the political prisoners’ freedom from the government.
We then began to organize ourselves more, to walk in groups of two. We would go to the government offices, writing letters, and asking that our loved ones be freed. We walked not only along 5th Avenue, but also on streets of different municipalities of Havana so that the people would come to know of us, that we were women of peace, with principles and dignity. The Cuban government got us out of our homes to advocate for the liberty of our loved ones.
The same pain united us. We only spoke of freedom, freedom, freedom for our loved ones. We began in the home of Laura Ines Pollan, a valiant, worthy, and educated woman of principle and dignity, who taught us much. On October 14, 2011, the Cuban government placed its black hands upon her and took her life.
[Laura Pollan Toledo (1948 – 2011) founded the Ladies in White opposition movement in Cuba. Her husband, Hector Maseda Gutierrez was one of the Group of 75 opposition activists arrested in the 2003 Black Spring crackdown. After her death, the movement was renamed the Laura Pollan Ladies in White in her honor.]
We began to meet in her home. She lost her privacy. She began hosting a literary tea once a month on the 18th, 19th, or 20th- the same dates on which our men were taken. There we would have only tea or chicken broth with hot water. We would hold readings of our men’s writings or poems. We tried to help one another. The difficulties of each prisoner. How we could help each other, help with our children ourselves, what we needed.
At that time we did not have more than 90 Ladies in White in the country. Everything was in Havana. We are peaceful women, with a nonviolent struggle. The government did not allow us to reach their offices, nor did it accept our letters, saying that we were counterrevolutionaries and that it would not listen to us. Our country does not accept us as citizens.
But, we continued and we continued walking the streets of Cuba so that the people would know us. The Cuban government, at that time and now, used acts of violence. To carry out the violence, they organized, mobilized and financed people from the Cuban Women’s Federation Work Centers, from the Communist Party of Cuba, from hotels that are obligated to participate, because they will lose the foreign currency they are given, or from the Partagas cigar factory because they also get foreign currency, or, students from the University of Havana, using these students in acts of violence organized and financed by the Cuban government.
They carry placards, Cuban flags, and July 26th flags. They assemble platforms to block our activities and our literary teas. Anyhow, there were 90 Ladies in White in the entire country. Laura dies on October 14, 2011, under suspicious conditions. The Cuban government has something to do with her death and, until now, they have not proven the contrary. When I took over the Ladies in White leadership we decided to form delegations in different provinces since travel is expensive. There is hardly any transportation and the distances are long. Each delegation will go to the nearest parish to pray and ask for the freedom of the political prisoners.
[The July 26th Movement was the revolutionary organization founded by Fidel Castro that overthrew the Fulgencio Batista regime in 1959.]
So we have delegations in different provinces. After our tour abroad, after our return (there were two more of us that travelled, we went to talk about the reality of the Cuban people and the human rights activities, of the political prisoners, and to denounce the Cuban government) we set a growth target. At this time, from June up to today [October 2013], there are more than 300 Ladies in White. [In 2013, the Cuban government relaxed travel restrictions for some Cuban citizens. Several leaders of the Ladies in White traveled to the United States and Europe.]
We ask each woman who wants to join us, who knocks on our doors, what motivates them to join us. Then we give them our rules to study. If they think they can meet the rules thoroughly they must sign a form with their first and last name, address, level of education, age, ID card, and whether they have a telephone. Their probationary period is three months. If they comply, after three months of only participating in Mass and walking along street near the church, they become permanent members.
And the government violently attacks us. Currently the political violence has worsened. The government is very worried because we have many women with dignity and principles who are aware of our struggle and come to us to join us. We try to educate them and ourselves on how to express ourselves on the streets - not only as Ladies in White, but also in our social lives - and how to conduct ourselves and express ourselves in our localities where we live and on the bus.
How to dress. We are peaceful women. We teach new members about the nonviolent struggle. If they develop awareness they continue with us. If they cannot be educated, they should not be with us. We do not knock on anyone’s door, but we do have a disciplinary council. We have a national executive that meets periodically with all of the delegations’ representatives to see what is needed, what must be done, what was done well, badly, or mediocre, and what we must overcome.