The Message of Cuba’s Ladies in White

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

A group of the Ladies in White in a religious procession in Santiago de Cuba. Photo: Janis Hernandez

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 25 — The Ladies in White have always forged ahead accompanied by tragedy.

Even when racking up victories, which have been many and unprecedented, they have done so under the most blatant repression, physical assaults and defamation by pen-wielding toads.  But what’s more tragic has been the silence — either out of complicity or fear — by those who are usually not silent.

All this has been tragic, because with their walks through the streets of Havana, they have excited the feeling of the sublime – and like no one had in decades.

But now at a particularly tragic moment they have lost Laura Pollan, an unquestionable and necessary leader, as are all leaders in the first moments when movements and organizations enter the political arena.

What’s more, Pollan’s death occurred at a time that the Ladies in White were redefining their place on the Cuban political scene. The dilemma is familiar: the release of the political prisoners, including all the relatives of the Ladies in White, ceased to be the reason for the movement.  They had also benefitted from an agreement of tolerance reached between the Catholic hierarchy and the Raul Castro government.

Redefining goals

This raised the problem of redefining goals, which for now remain focused on the release of political prisoners, of whom there are now few and who in most cases have against them criminal records that are much more controversial than those of the prisoners who were released earlier this year.

Otherwise they can focus their attention on the arrests of activists, but these are for short and intermittent periods. It is an abhorrent practice but one that is difficult to mobilize energies around over the long-term.

Given this, there have emerged many positions as to what these brave women should do. At one extreme (from the tabernacles of the government) has come the demand that they dismantle and demobilize, arguing that they have now accomplished their goal.

At the other extreme are those calling for greater politicization of the movement; urging these women to take up other issues and to approach traditional dissident groups.

Obviously I would not dare to suggest — from my comfortable life in exile — what the Ladies in White should do. That would be political pedantry and a moral dereliction.

I would only dare to point out, as a unassuming analyst, why they have done things so well, and how they could continue doing them well by using the same issues and resources that they have used so far (though of course with no pretensions of being a part of a debate that takes place on the role and the paths of organized opposition in Cuba).

Three traits have marked the strength and originality of the Ladies in White.

The first of these traits has been the modesty of its members. They have never sought the cameras or adopted commercial poses when the reporters showed up on their own. They never considered themselves pristine moral pieces of politics. There was no mysticism in them, nor did they accept comparisons with heroes. The images we have of them is a line of women marching with flowers on a path that they know, or those of the same women attacked by mobs of thugs, their faces contorted by rage and pain. Except for two or three members appointed by the group, almost no one spoke. They only sang of freedom as they marched. And although they did this almost whispering, the whole world heard them.

The second indomitable feature was the realization of their demands: the release of their relatives and other prisoners for political reasons. Unlike the usual opposition, accustomed to grand proclamations calling for unity and programs for total change, their paucity must have seemed a sign of their lacking any ambition. But it was truly an example of how to implement good policy — that which is applied to win and not just to witness — against a totalitarian state like Cuba. In fact they were the only group that forced the Cuban government to give in, even though the government has done so through a deplorable maneuver, with the help of the Spanish government and the Catholic hierarchy (Here I’m not evaluating the intentions the on this point).

And finally, the Ladies in White based their strength on their own frailties. Suppressing women who were fighting for their families (many of those Ladies approaching their senior years) involved an ethical cost that was too high for law enforcement agents and government spokesmen. Although the Cuban government has never lacked hatchet men ready for anything, even in the worst of moments indecency has its limit.

Frankly, I believe that to imagine the Ladies in White reading proclamations about elections and a multiparty system, is to distort and condemn them to a political vacuum. To ask them to do so is foolish and inconsiderate. I prefer to imagine them recovering their strong points in a sensitive and humane way as their focus on the prison population, an area in which Cuba — sadly enough — stands in a “high” position worldwide.

The Cuban prison population is very high. In 2004 an independent agency estimated it to have some 297 prisoners per every 100,000 inhabitants, which placed the country in a “three-digit club” led by the United States and Russia. This would have totaled something like 35,000 prisoners.

Another source, the British International Center for Prison Studies, stated that in 2006 there were 487 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, equaling something like 55,000 inmates. Other less credible sources speak of 100,000 prisoners or almost 1 percent the population.

Because the government does not allow free and objective inspections, and since the press does not and cannot inquire, we can only approach the situation of prisons by anecdotal evidence from those affected. But even if we reduced the critical mass of these accounts (assuming that the punished will always carry with them obvious resentments) we still have a shocking picture of poor nutrition, overcrowding, sub-standard medical care, physical punishment, corruption and abuses of all kinds.

Often directed against individuals, we must recall that they didn’t have in their favor clean and fair criminal proceedings.

Proposal for the new situation

If the Ladies in White in this new situation were capable of channeling demands for decriminalization, a transparent justice system accessible to everyone and a more humane prison system — all of which are essential for getting Cuba out of the infamous “three digit club” — I think not only would this make a greater contribution to Cuban society, but they would also force the Cuban government to reconsider its repressive plans. In addition their former allies and very cautious allies would narrow the gap between them and the Ladies.

But above all, we need to think about what it would mean if they were joined in this crusade for a better Cuba by at least a part of the tens of thousands of families who have members imprisoned. This would have meaning by virtue of its political impact inside Cuba as well as for its impact on the socialization of new values ??of solidarity on the basis of the dignity of Cuban men and women.

Whatever happens, no matter what the future course of the Ladies in White might be, there will always be a space for them in life, particularly the unfailing Laura Pollan. For many of us they showed a higher horizon – the criteria, as Marti noted, of true greatness.

I take this opportunity presented by this article to testify my respect and admiration for them.


Published originally in Spanish by Cubaencuentro. 

5 thoughts on “The Message of Cuba’s Ladies in White

  • Cuba would be morally poorer without the Ladies in White. It takes guts to do what they do unarmed and vulnerable. Shouting at them just takes opportunists. There is too much worship of guns, machismo and violence in Cuba.

  • Ud no vive en Cuba como la gente de pueblo. Ud tiene dolares y siempre la idea de que va a regresar a vivir comodo al imperio. Sea mas discreto señor, no ofenda a mi gente. Haga su revolucion en USA

    You do not live in Cuba as the common people. You always have dollars and the idea that you will return to live comfortably in the empire. Be more discreet sir, don’t offend my people. Make your revolution in USA

  • I have been going to Cuba for twenty five years and have spent the winter months for the last fourteen years in Cuba.I have many Cuban friends,my wife is Cuban.I do not live on a resort,i live in the city with the Cuban people.You can fool some of the people some of the time but you can not fool all of the people all of the time

  • Traductor

    Del: español

    Al: inglés




    Es una trampa politica. El gobierno cubano les impide acceso a una vida normal por realizar sus actividades. Y ellas se ven obligadas a buscar dinero en USA. Y luego gente como Ud, enemigos del pobre pueblo cubano y amigos de la camarilla gobernante, condena a las damas de blanco




    It is a political trap, Mr Burguess. The Cuban government prevents access to a normal life for their activities. And they are forced to find money in the USA. And then people like you, enemies of the poor Cuban people and friends of the ruling clique, condemns the ladies in white

  • I could have a lot more respect for these ladies if they did not get their mony from tio sam.

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