They call themselves “las Damas de Blanco” (“the Ladies in White”). They are a prominent group of courageous Cuban women, many of them wives of political prisoners. They have fought not just for the rights of the unjustly imprisoned but for the rights of all the Cuban people to have a voice in the way their country is governed.
Their tactics are entirely peaceful: They take to the streets of Havana and Santiago de Cuba each Sunday and silently march in protest against human rights violations of the Castro regime and the harassment and jailing of Cuban activists and dissidents. Dressed in white and holding red gladiolas flowers, the Ladies in White are enduring symbols of the acute toll of Cuban political oppression.
In July 2010, following the sacrifices of prisoners of conscience, such as hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo (d. February 23, 2010), the Ladies in White achieved their first major victory. In a deal brokered by the Roman Catholic Church and the Spanish government, 52 activists jailed since 2003 were released, among them the husband of Ladies in White founder Laura Pollan.
But the summer also brought an escalation of attacks against the Ladies in White by Castro thugs and state security goons as the women once again became victims of brutal beatings and attacks at the hands of the regime.
In October, the Ladies in White suffered another blow when Pollan died of a heart attack at the age of 63. Pollan’s leadership in the fight for Cuban freedom was extraordinary. For her determination, she was posthumously awarded the National Endowment for Democracy’s Human Rights Award.
The repression and violence experienced by the Ladies in White is, unfortunately, not unusual. Just this week, the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation announced that a record 786 political arrests occurred in Cuba last month. While many are of a short-term nature, they are designed to promote fear and intimidation. These arrests brought the 2011 total to 4,123, compared with 2,074 in 2010.
Yet all too often the media and Obama Administration overlook this continuing wave of repression in Cuba. This inaction, at least on the part of the Administration, is a manifestation of Obama’s flawed foreign policy of engaging with U.S. adversaries such as Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.
Thankfully, some in the U.S. Senate are not inclined to ignore the day-to-day struggle for freedom in Cuba, Most recently, Senators Marco Rubio (R–FL) and Robert Menendez (D–NJ) called for the release of Ladies in White member Ivonne Malleza and activist Isabel Hayde Alvarez Mosqueda.
This is a just demand that the Obama Administration has yet to endorse but is needed to underscore the precarious human rights situation in Cuba.