By Tracey Eaton (alongthemalecon.blogspot.com)
|Dissident Luis Díaz Silva with Las Damas de Blanco in Havana|
HAVANA TIMES – In 2016, the State Department plans to spend $20 million for programs to strengthen Cuban civil society, support “fundamental freedoms and respect for human rights” and aid “victims of political repression and their families”.
The US State Department has also requested $528,000 for a new program called Cuba Outreach Initiative, which will operate out of the American embassy, which opened today.
Berta Soler, the leader of Las Damas de Blanco in Havana, told me she worried that the Obama administration cared more about paving the way for American businesses in Cuba than supporting democracy activists. See “Cuban activists feel abandoned amid US rapprochement.”
We don’t want to have McDonald’s and to have human rights violations. We want that first there is respect for human rights, rights for all Cubans. And then afterwards, let McDonald’s come.
Las Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, has been one of the most visible opposition groups in Cuba. Soler and other group members said security agents have stepped up their repression of the organization and other human rights groups since Dec. 17 when the U.S. and Cuba announced plans to renew diplomatic ties.
|Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca. Photo: 14yMedio|
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reported there were 563 arbitrary arrests in June. In what was described as the most troubling of the arrests, the commission alleged that agents arrested independent journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca on June 3, drove him to a state security office, questioned him and threatened him. Then, the report said, the agents drove Valle Roca miles outside Havana to an isolated spot and forced him to kneel as an agent pressed the barrel of his pistol against his neck in a simulated execution.
Valle Roca planned to report the incident to Cuba’s attorney general, the commission said. (Valle Roca uses his blog to report on human rights issues and other things, including my recent visit to a Las Damas de Blanco event).
In other instances, the commission said, security agents used police cars as mobile detention centers. For instance:
- On June 9, police left Hugo Damián Prieto Blanco in a patrol car for 96 hours and warned him not to support Las Damas de Blanco.
- On June 14, they left Juan Lamas Martínez in a car for eight hours, then drove him miles outside Havana and left him there.
- On June 19, Reinaldo Hernández Rodríguez was left in a car for four days to prevent him from supporting Las Damas de Blanco. He had to be hospitalized afterward, the commission said.
- On June 5, police arrested 11 activists – Ricardo Luna Rodríguez, Reinier Wilson Castellanos, Eider Columbié Castellanos, Lázaro Mendoza García, Francisco García Punier, Leudis Reyes Cuza, Reinaldo Rodríguez Hernández, Luís Andrés Domínguez Sardiñas, Liván Gómez Castillo, Andrés Avelino Domínguez Beltrán y Luís Enrique López Torres. They were detained for 72 hours. They spent their nights handcuffed inside patrol cars. During the day, they were moved to a jail at the police station.
Given such episodes, Soler told me it’s especially important that the international community, including the U.S. government, support democracy activists in Cuba.
|Laura Labrada Pollán|
Laura Labrada Pollán, who leads a separate Las Damas de Blanco group in Havana, agreed, telling me she hopes the U.S. government “will not abandon the struggle of civil society…because it is fighting to start true democracy in Cuba.”
That is one thing that Pollán and Soler can agree upon, but they clash over many other issues.
Pollán is the daughter of Laura Pollán, who helped found Las Damas de Blanco 12 years ago to seek the release of her husband, journalist Hector Maseda, and 74 other activists jailed in a March 2003 crackdown.
For years, Las Damas members used Laura Pollán’s house along Neptune Street as their headquarters. That arrangement continued even after Pollán died in October 2011.
But Soler and Pollán’s daughter disagreed over strategy and the direction of Las Damas de Blanco and wound up splitting in March.
Labrada Pollán told Soler she was no longer welcome at the Neptune Street headquarters.
|Las Damas de Blanco headquarters in Lawton|
Soler’s group now meets at a house in Havana’s Lawton neighborhood. Labrada Pollán contends that Soler bought the house for herself using international prize money that Las Damas de Blanco had been awarded.
Soler denied that and said exiled Cuban “brothers” in Florida paid for the two-story house. She said:
How much did it cost? It doesn’t matter. They say we don’t have to say anything to anyone.
But she said the house is not hers:
This is the headquarters for Las Damas de Blanco. Everything’s in order.
|Members of Berta Soler’s group|
It would not be a stretch to think that U.S. tax dollars helped finance Las Damas’ new headquarters. Over the past decade, Cuban exile organizations in Miami have received millions of dollars in federal grants.
Directorio Democratico Cubano received $8.9 million in grants from 2008 to 2013, tax records show. Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia received $5.8 million from 2007 to 2013, and the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba received $4.1 million from 2009 to 2013.
|Laura Labrada Pollán and her followers march in Havana|
Leaders of the Las Damas groups do not disclose information about their financial backers. But they are both are passionate about their cause and the direction of the organization.
Soler said that “being Laura’s daughter” doesn’t give Labrada Pollán the right to head Las Damas de Blanco. She said:
Leaders aren’t created. Leaders are born. A leader is someone who attracts followers, who moves people.
Labrada Pollán said she is only trying to maintain the legacy of her mother. She said she wants to connect with ordinary Cubans. So on Father’s Day, for instance, her followers passed out disposable razors to men on the street.
|Supporters of Berta Soler’s Las Damas group|
Soler, whose group distributes photos of political prisoners, was not impressed. She said:
Really I don’t see that she wants to confront the Cuban government. They walk two, three blocks and that’s it. They aren’t even arrested.