By PATRICIA GROGG
HAVANA TIMES, March 18 (IPS) – The group of women known as the Ladies in White are holding six days of protests this week in the Cuban capital, one for each year their dissident husbands, fathers or sons have spent in prison.
“We are peaceful people, and what we want is for our husbands to be freed,” Barbara Rojo, one of the women who gathered at the house of Laura Pollan, who often acts as spokeswoman for the group, told IPS.
The Ladies in White group was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament in 2005 for its efforts on behalf of human rights. The prize is named after Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet dissident, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
On Tuesday, the first of the six days of their campaign, the Ladies attended mass at the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart on a busy street in Havana, dressed in their trademark white, symbolizing peace.
On Wednesday they went to the cathedral in the heart of Old Havana.
As usual, the women walked silently down the street, carrying gladiolus stems in blossom and holding photographs of their loved ones. Many passers-by watch their processions in silence, but sometimes the women have been challenged with shouts and revolutionary slogans by civilians who, according to the Ladies, are following official orders.
On this occasion, some of the members of the group who live in towns and cities in other provinces of the country were allegedly prevented from coming to Havana because they were confined to their homes by so-called “rapid response brigades” engaging in “acts of repudiation,” which are also orchestrated by the authorities, Rojo said.
In a letter addressed to Cuban President Raul Castro, the women held the authorities responsible for any “further provocations” and for “our physical safety and our lives.”
The present mobilization by the Ladies in White coincides with the visit of the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, Louis Michel, who is attending a seminar in Havana on Wednesday and Thursday on cooperation between the European Union and Cuba.
“We have sent a private letter to the Commissioner. I don’t think he will meet us or anybody else (from dissident groups), but I think his presence is important on this (anniversary) date,” said Pollan, recalling that on his previous visit in October, Michel refrained from conversations with groups of Cuban dissidents.
In their letter to Castro, the women asked for tolerance for the expression of their demands, a right which is protected under the constitution, and for the “immediate and unconditional” release of their loved ones.
The Ladies in White are the daughters, wives or mothers of 75 dissidents arrested between March 18 and 20, 2003, and sentenced to prison terms of between six and 28 years on charges of conspiring with Washington to subvert the government.
Of the original 75, 54 are still in prison, one was freed in January after serving out his sentence, and the other 20 were conditionally released on health grounds. Several of those released are now living abroad.
The arrests coincided with a climate of tension created by several hijackings of planes and boats by people trying to make it to the United States. One of the incidents led to the death penalty being applied to three out of eight men who tried to hijack a full passenger ferry.
According to the Cuban Foreign Ministry, the imprisoned dissidents were carrying out “activities to overthrow the political, economic and social order chosen by the Cuban people,” and were “financed and instructed by a foreign power.”
But the Ladies in White argue that the 75 were unjustly imprisoned and point out that the human rights watchdog Amnesty International has declared them “prisoners of conscience,” and has said their activities were not considered criminal in any country with a truly democratic system.
In reaction to the arrests, the EU imposed diplomatic sanctions on Cuba that limited bilateral visits by high-level officials. EU countries also started to invite dissidents to official receptions on their national holidays, and cut down their participation in cultural events in Cuba.
In turn, Havana “froze” its relations with European embassies. But the lifting of the sanctions imposed by Brussels, in June 2008, paved the way for the resumption of political dialogue and cooperation between Cuba and the EU.