“Damas de Blanco:” A Week of Protest in Cuba

To the extent that the Castro brothers are, as Blog for Cuba writes, “afraid of women wearing white,” it's due to more than just the uniform color of their outfits or their weekly marches through Old Havana.

The Damas de Blanco (Ladies wearing White) protests come on the heels of a flutter of international condemnation incited by the hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo's death last month. An official resolution was passed in the European Parliament, and a petition calling for the immediate release of all political prisoners that was posted to a blog less than a week ago has already been signed by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar and Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. Meanwhile, yet another hunger striker is hospitalized in Havana after refusing asylum.

Wednesday's crackdown by Cuban police was the first in two years on the political group, which is made up of the daughters, wives and mothers of imprisoned political dissidents. They're commemorating the seventh anniversary of 2003's “Black Spring,” in which 75 dissidents were arrested, by marching every day in the Cuban capital.  In the most violent of the reactions to these protests, the women were reportedly attacked by a mob of pro-government Cubans and forced onto a bus by authorities.

We are protesting peacefully and we are not going to get on the bus of a government that has kept our family members in prison for seven years…

said the group leader, Laura Pollán, just before she was forced off the street and onto the bus. Repeating Islands quotes an AFP report, saying:

As police were taking the women away, Margarita Rodríguez, a housewife in a crowd of some 300 pro-government demonstrators, shouted: ‘Board them by force, it’s what they deserve. This is a provocation.’

This was the least of the slurs directed at the Ladies in White by the Castro supporters who flanked the marchers and pushed them towards the bus. In reaction to the violent antagonism among Cubans of different political viewpoints, Yoani Sanchez writes:

I shudder to imagine a Cuba where physical – and legal – attacks against people, for their political affiliation or ideological leanings, continue. What a sad country we will have if the authorities continue to consider it normal to ‘teach a good lesson’ to anyone who contradicts the official viewpoint. To me, a society that passively stands by as peaceful women with gladioli in their hands are bullied, as happened yesterday, is quite sick.

At Havana Times, Yusimi Rodriguez recounts turning a corner in Old Havana and realizing that this was not your everyday “Damas” march:

Coming down the street was a group of approximately twenty women dressed in civilian clothing and chanting slogans.  Around them flocked several reporters filming and taking pictures.  I suppose these were mainly or entirely foreign reporters.

At first I didn’t know what was happening until somebody told me it was about the Ladies in White. But none of the women I saw were wearing white, nor could I understand the first slogans they chanted.  But suddenly, at the closest spot I could reach, they began to shout, ‘Whoever doesn’t jump is a Yankee'…The women in the demonstration itself did indeed jump.  One even ran forward jumping with her two feet at the same time.  Finally that group went by and I was able to see —for the first time since I’d heard of them— the Ladies in White: a group of between fifteen and twenty women dressed in white. They all proceeded in silence and carried gladiola flowers. Around them were several uniformed police.

Rodriguez also notes the marked organization of the anti-government protesters:

I find it striking that these community women, who are not police or agents, have been able to become organized so well and interrupt the Ladies in White so quickly.  Could it be that they all come from the same neighborhood?  How did they find out about the march?   Was it publicized?  I was also surprised they were only women. Undoubtedly it would have looked very bad if men had faced up to the Ladies, especially if it was true that there was some pushing and shoving in the heat of moment, as someone said.  Between women it’s something else, there are more equal conditions.  Both sides were made up only of women: those from the community and the Ladies in White (who, by the way, are also Cuban women and therefore part of the broader Cuban community).

“One thing is clear these manifestations against the ladies in white at clearly organized by the regime,” writes Julio de la Yncera in a comment at Havana Times.

On Wednesday night, Cuban television aired a round table discussion about implicating international meddlers in the domestic unrest.  In this case, the government may be more on target than it would like: as bloggers and other online activists are showing, anger over human rights abuses within (and without) the island is swelling, and more people are watching to see what will happen next.


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