Leader's death presents new challenge for Cuba's 'Ladies'

Hector Maseda, center, widower of Laura Pollan, walks with members of dissident group Ladies in White Sunday as they march in front of Santa Rita church in Havana. (Franklin Reyes ~ Associated Press)

HAVANA -- Cuba's Ladies in White have vowed to keep protesting against the island's communist-run government despite the death of their late founder and spiritual leader, but the loss presents new challenges for a dissident group already struggling to be visible and influential among islanders.

While Laura Pollan's passing Friday from a respiratory virus probably isn't an existential setback, analysts said, it will be no simple matter replacing the energetic, unifying figure who sheltered many of the Ladies in her home headquarters and rallied them to march despite a sometimes-hostile reception.

"I suspect that it's not a blow like a before-and-after, in terms of them disappearing," said Ted Henken, who studies Cuba as a professor of Latin American studies at Baruch College in New York. "But I think it's key because she was a charismatic and organizational leader."

Pollan founded the group in 2003 with about a dozen other women whose husbands were among 75 government opponents arrested and sentenced to long prison terms in one of the biggest crackdowns on dissent in decades.

Over the years they grew to about 30 members and became a frequent sight along the leafy 5th Avenue in Havana's Miramar district, marching each week after Mass clad in white and holding gladiolas. Under Pollan's leadership they gained fame overseas, and in 2005 the European Union awarded them its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

On Sunday, the Ladies mourned Pollan in an emotional march that for the first time included a column of men in their ranks. More than 100 people took part in the march, the largest group in memory, and they shouted "Laura Pollan lives!" instead of their customary "Freedom for political prisoners!"

"This is a day of mourning for the Ladies in White and for the opposition in Cuba," said prominent member Bertha Soler.

"The Ladies in White's message to the government is that we will continue" protesting, Soler said. "We have physically lost a leader, but Laura Pollan is in our hearts."

Safe home

Despite the Ladies' claims to be a nonhierarchical group that makes decisions by consensus, Pollan was its most public face and unofficial leader to whom the others often turned for guidance.

Perhaps equally important, it was Pollan's home that served as a kind of refuge and command center for launching protests. For years the front door was open nearly around the clock, revealing white-clad Ladies inside. Many relied on it as a crash pad when visiting from far-flung provinces.

Set in the gritty, densely populated neighborhood of Central Havana, the home was in a perfect location to maximize the Ladies' visibility to average Cubans and foreign journalists as they came and went on their marches. It also became a flashpoint for counterdemonstrations known as "acts of repudiation," by pro-government crowds who sometimes surrounded the home yelling insults and revolutionary slogans and prevented the women from leaving.

"The regime is more afraid that [the Ladies'] message can get through if they are in Central Havana. That's why there have been so many acts of repudiation there," said Laura Garcia Freyre, a doctoral candidate at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who has been researching the Ladies and other dissidents since the 1990s. "The home played an important role ... and we'll have to see what the Ladies in White will do not only without the figure of Laura Pollan but where will they meet."

Pollan's widower, Hector Maseda, who marched at the head of the column Sunday carrying a photograph of his wife, said that the group could continue to use the home. But it's not clear how much of a headquarters it will be without the constant presence of Pollan, who made herself and the house available to the Ladies 24 hours a day.

The two women most likely to step into the void, Soler and Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva, live in the outlying district of Alamar and several hours away in Matanzas province, respectively, and it would be hard to mount effective, visible protests from either locale given Cuba's underdeveloped transportation infrastructure.

Even before Pollan's death, the Ladies already found themselves at a crossroads.

Like most in the island's tiny dissident community, the Ladies in White's names are little known in Cuba. State-run newspapers and TV stations rarely acknowledge the dissidents except to accuse them of trying to topple the government as "mercenaries" in the hire of Washington and militantly anti-Castro exile groups in Florida. There has been no mention of Pollan's passing in the official media.

Meanwhile, the release earlier this year of the last of their husbands still in prison from the 2003 crackdown can be counted as the Ladies' greatest success -- but it also robbed them of the cause for which they came to exist.

Many of the ex-prisoners and their families abandoned the country for exile. Others have left the Ladies in previous years after their husbands were released. Sunday's demonstration suggested that there has been a near-complete turnover in their ranks, with Soler the only one marching who has been around since the beginning.

Pollan said in September that they were expanding outside the capital and refocusing on demands that the government release others behind bars for politically motivated but violent crimes including hijacking and sabotage, which keeps them from being recognized as prisoners of conscience by groups such as Amnesty International.

Her death makes their mission that much harder, said Hector Palacios, one of the ex-prisoners.

"Laura played an important role in organizing the Ladies and maintaining the group's work, and without a doubt, replacing her will not be easy."