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Berta Soler Fernández was born in Cuba in 1963. She studied microbiology and became a hospital technician in Havana. In 1988, Berta married Angel Moya Acosta, an opposition activist who became one of 75 nonviolent dissidents arrested during the March 2003 crackdown known as the Black Spring.

Berta’s activism began after Cuban authorities imprisoned her husband in 2003. Joining with other spouses and family members of the Black Spring prisoners, she became a founding member of an organization called the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) that demanded the release of their loved ones and advocated for greater civil liberties in Cuba.

In October 2004, the Ladies in White staged protests in front of the Communist Party’s headquarters in Revolution Square, pressuring the government to allow Berta’s husband to undergo surgery for a herniated disc. The protest went on for two days until the regime permitted Angel’s operation.

Berta was a central figure in orchestrating the release of her husband and other Black Spring political prisoners. The Ladies in White lobbied Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the leading representative of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba, and convinced him to negotiate for the release of the prisoners. By 2011, after years of protests, the Black Spring dissidents, including Berta’s husband, were released. While the majority of the prisoners went into exile, Berta and Angel chose to remain in Cuba.

In 2005, the European Parliament awarded the Ladies in White its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Berta, along with the other representatives of the organization, planned to receive the honor in person. However, the Cuban government denied them passports and they were unable to attend the ceremony. In 2013, after the regime had relaxed its repressive travel restrictions, Berta received permission to leave the island and led a delegation to accept the 2005 Sakharov Prize on behalf of the Ladies in White.

In 2011, Berta assumed the leadership of the Ladies in White following the death of the organization’s co-founder, Laura Pollan. She continues the struggle for a free and democratic Cuba. 

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.

Cuba, an island nation of 11.4 million people in the northern Caribbean Sea, is a totalitarian state.

Fidel Castro led the 1959 Cuban Revolution and ruled the country for 49 years before formally relinquishing power to his younger brother Raul in 2008. Raul Castro is the current head of state and First Secretary of the Communist Party, which is recognized by the Cuban Constitution as the only legal political party and “the superior leading force of society and of the state.” Raul Castro has said that he will step down from power at the age of 86 in 2018.

Cuba was a territory of Spain until the Spanish-American War. The United States assumed control of the island until 1902, when the Republic of Cuba became formally independent. A fledgling democracy was established, with the U.S. continuing to play a strong role in Cuban affairs.

In 1952, facing an impending electoral loss, former president Fulgencio Batista staged a successful military coup and overthrew the existing government. While his first term as elected president in the 1940s largely honored progressive politics, universal freedoms, and the Cuban Constitution of 1940, Batista’s return to power in the 1950s was a dictatorship marked by corruption, organized crime and gambling. He held power until 1959 when he was ousted by Fidel Castro’s rebel July 26th Movement.

While promising free elections and democracy, Castro moved quickly to consolidate power. By 1961, Castro had declared Cuba to be a communist nation.

Castro’s communist government nationalized private businesses, lashed out at political opponents, and banned independent civil society. As Cuba aligned itself with the Soviet Union, Cuban-American relations soured, including a U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to war, after the Soviets installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, prompting a U.S. naval embargo.

Since the revolution, Cuba has remained a one-party state. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the evaporation of Soviet economic support, Cuba loosened some economic policies, became more open to foreign investment, and legalized use of the U.S. dollar. By the late 1990s, Venezuela had become Cuba’s chief patron, thanks to the close relationship between the Castro brothers and Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez.

The regime continues to exercise authoritarian political control, clamping down on political dissent and mounting defamation campaigns against dissidents, portraying them as malignant U.S. agents. In a massive crackdown in 2003 known as the Black Spring, the government imprisoned 75 of Cuba’s best-known nonviolent dissidents.

The Cuban government does not respect the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion. The government and the Communist Party control all news media, and the government routinely harasses and detains its critics, particularly those who advocate democracy and respect of human rights. Frequent government actions against dissidents often take the form of attacks by regime-organized mobs. Prison conditions are harsh and often life-threatening, and the courts operate as instruments of the Communist Party rather than conducting fair trials.

Cuba relaxed its travel laws in 2013, allowing some prominent dissidents to leave and return to the country. It continues to experiment with modest economic reforms but remains committed to communist economic orthodoxy.

In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, Cuba was designated as “not free” and is grouped near the bottom of the world’s nations, with severely restricted civil rights and political liberties.

More on this theme from Berta Soler

Berta Soler: The Ladies In White “We are women of peace, with principles and dignity.” Berta Soler: Mission of the Ladies In White “Love for life, family and our country got us out of our homes”

Other videos from Berta Soler

Berta Soler: The Black Spring “The cell was three steps wide and seven long.” Berta Soler: Message to Dissidents Berta sends a message to other dissidents. Berta Soler: Challenging the Regime “They do not have a way to stop us.” More + Berta Soler: Conditions in Cuban Prisons “Conditions are subhuman.” More +