New bond for 'widows' of Cuba crackdown

Some wives of recently jailed dissidents rally for their husbands' release - despite fear of arrest

In the airy vestibule of Santa Rita Church in the seaside suburb of Mirimar last Sunday, among the pews full of couples and families young and old, a group of 20 unaccompanied women in white blouses and black scarves stood out.

They are the "widows" of Cuba's recent political crackdown - the wives of the human rights activists, political-reform campaigners, and independent journalists sentenced to prison terms of up to 28 years. Of the 75 dissidents convicted in hasty trials in April, only independent economist Marta Beatriz Roque is a woman.

Every week the wives gather at the church of the patron saint of desperate causes.

"We have come to remember our husbands," said Miriam Leiva, wearing a T-shirt imprinted with a photo of her jailed spouse, independent economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe. "This is an act of solidarity and support for their cause."

Cuban officials insist that the sweep was necessary to thwart a US-hatched plot to foment a fifth column to topple President Fidel Castro. The jailed dissidents and their supporters insist that their only crime was to dare to challenge the authority of Mr. Castro's one-party state.

While the convictions have shattered Cuba's budding dissident movement, it has also created a new union among the men's wives. They are not a movement, the women insist, but a circle of friendship and support in a time of shared hardship.

For some, this challenge is just a further step in the work they shared with their husbands. For others, who took little interest in the dissident movement, circumstances have compelled them to become more active. For all the women, life with their men behind bars is a struggle to hold the family together while doing what they can to win their husbands' release.

Strangers before arrests

Many of the wives, now friends, were strangers before their husbands' convictions. Many met for the first time in the weeks between trials when many Havana dissidents were held at the Cuban state security headquarters of Villa Marista.

"We would see each other bringing clothes and food to our husbands," says Blanca Reyes, wife of independent journalist and poet Raúl Reyes, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison. "We would talk about our families and how we were doing. I did not know all the names of the other wives, but we knew what we were doing there. We stay in contact and now we have this union together. We support each other; it reminds us that we are not isolated."

Ms. Reyes jokes at the irony that some now call her a cabezita, or little head among the women, when she took almost no interest in her husband's work before his arrest.

"I knew about his work, and I supported it, but I never participated in any activities," she says. "I never went with him to the embassies or his meetings."

Within weeks of her husband's arrest, Reyes had circulated a letter among the other wives appealing for support from the pope, the Spanish royal family, and the first ladies of European Union presidents.

"[Our husbands] are in prison and we are free. What else can we do?" she asks. "I'm not asking that they reduce the sentences. We want them to eliminate the sentences. In my husband's case, all he did was write. The only things that they confiscated from our house as evidence were press articles. I won't stop speaking until they let him free, or they put me in prison."

But her defiance is cut by realism. In the first few weeks that they worshiped together, the women held a silent march along the shady lanes by the church. Recently, Cuban security officers have visited several of the most visible and active wives, such as Ms. Leiva, to warn them that there would be consequences if they continued to march and to discourage them from even attending the church service.

Concerned that they might be arrested and thus unavailable to their husbands, the women have ceased their protest marches, though many continue to attend worship.

Speaking in her central Havana apartment, Reyes says she feels bound to do what she can to stay out of prison. As she spoke, she prepared for her next prison visit, packing a parcel of necessities: magazines, a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses, papers, pens, roach spray, mosquito spray, toothpaste, shaving cream, and dried food.

"I am the only one fit to look after Raúl," she says. "I have a responsibility to him to stay alive and free."

Helping each other financially

After their convictions, the men were transferred by Cuban authorities to distant provinces. Mr. Rivero is serving his sentence nearly 300 miles from Havana in the province of Holguin. Mr. Chepe is being held in easternmost province of Guantanamo, more than 550 miles from Havana.

Organizing transport to visit their husbands is just one burden the women share. Not all have the same resources to pay for such travel, Reyes says, noting that the wives have been known to lend each other money.

Last week, many of the prominent wives like Leiva and Reyes were told that the visiting schedule was being changed. The once-weekly visits have now been reduced to every three months. After this week's visit, Reyes says, the next time she expects to see her husband is at the end of August. That is punishment, the women speculate, for refusing simply to accept their husbands' fate.

Gisela Delgado sits in a small room in her Havana home, the walls crowded with shelves of new volumes on art, architecture, literature, and other subjects. The collection once served as one of Cuba's independent libraries. Now there are gaps under headings like "journalism" and "human rights." Cuban state security officials confiscated those books.

Ms. Delgado heads Cuba's association of independent libraries. Her husband, Hector Palacios, was a leading dissident figure in the movement Todos Unidos - All Together - before he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

'We feel great pressure'

In the past few weeks, Delgado has been one of the most outspoken dissident wives, giving frequent interviews to Miami-based Radio Marti, other foreign news services, and journalists based in Havana. Many wives are too intimidated to speak out as she does, Delgado says, and for her activism she has been refused visits to her husband and otherwise targeted for abuse.

"One of the teachers at my daughter's school told her that I had better stop talking to foreigners if she wanted to go to university, because they did not accept children of counterrevolutionaries," she says. "Someone else went to my mother-in-law's house telling her that because of my work, her son would not get his prison visit this week."

"We feel great pressure. I think that I feel like I can be arrested at any moment," she says. "Still, the government wants to squash the voices of freedom. That is why they arrested our husbands. We have to continue their work."

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