Cuba arrests Ladies in White
The 'Damas de Blanco,' a group of Cuban women seeking the release of political prisoners, held a protest in front of Raúl Castro's office Monday.
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But since his imprisonment, the former high school teacher is now at the center of discussions, prayers, fasting – and a rare, impromptu street protest Monday. Ms. Pollán is a leader of the "Damas de Blanco" (Ladies in White), a group of wives, mothers, and sisters of 75 dissidents, many of them reporters, jailed after a sudden sweep of arrests nationwide in March 2003.
On Monday morning, Pollán and nine other Damas were roughed up by a mob and arrested near the offices of President Raúl Castro. "We are here to demand the release of our husbands and won't leave until they are free or they arrest us. We have waited long enough, we want to talk to the new president," Pollán said, according to Reuters.
Moments later, a bus pulled up and about 20 female corrections officers tried to arrest the women, who sat on the sidewalk, clasped arms, and refused to move. A mob of about 100 Cuban government supporters, mainly women from nearby government buildings, joined the fray, picking the Damas up, throwing them into the waiting bus, and yelling insults, Reuters reported.
Monday's protest was unusual. It may, as Pollán suggested in a recent interview here, reflect a broad, emerging expectation of loosening political restrictions in the one-party Socialist state.
Raúl Castro officially became Cuba's first new president in nearly 50 years in February, when he took over for his ailing brother Fidel Castro. Raúl has recently dropped restrictions on ownership of computers and cellphones, among other changes. Some here and abroad have expressed the hope he would go beyond granting access to consumer goods and services. But the government response to the Damas protest Monday may be designed to tamp down such expectations.
Certainly, the Damas have been the only tolerated expression of opposition for some time. Each Sunday, the Damas take to Havana's streets in a 10-block march that starts at Santa Rita de Casia Church and ends at a nearby park. Easily recognized by the all-white clothes they wear, the faces of their brothers and uncles worn as pins on their blouses, they seek the immediate release of their relatives, whom they say were given unfair trials and detained on false charges.
Observers say these women represent the only systematic, peaceful civil disobedience taking place today in Cuba. They have received global attention and won international accolades, and in doing so undergone a personal transformation that Pollán says she didn't know was within her.
"I started fighting for my husband, then for the group, and now it's for changes for the better of the country," says Pollán in an interview in her house. "We found qualities in ourselves we did not know we had."
The arrests of Pollán's husband, Héctor Maseda, along with 74 others, took place in a three-day period in 2003, known here as "Black Spring." Human rights activists say that their trials were cobbled together a few weeks later; Mr. Maseda only met his lawyer 15 minutes before the proceeding began. They were dubbed "mercenaries" of the US – because they published in foreign media outlets – and some were given sentences of nearly three decades.
Having nowhere else to turn, the Damas formed almost immediately, and since then they have never missed a Sunday march, including braving three cyclones. They have also been joined by Cubans who were not directly affected by "Black Spring." They have been compared to other women's groups like Argentina's "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo," who protest for the children who were disappeared during that country's "dirty war."