Bolder Tactics Divide Cuba's 'Ladies in White'
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A group of women dressed all in white has become a familiar sight in Havana. They are the wives of a group of dissidents who were detained by Cuban authorities five years ago this spring. Shortly after the 75 men were rounded up, their wives began a weekly demonstration in front of one of the city's churches. They protest peacefully, but now the women are considering whether to move to bolder methods.
From Havana, NPR's Tom Gjelten reports that their debate raises the question of how best to oppose a dictatorship.
TOM GJELTEN: The Ladies in White, as they're called, attend mass together each Sunday at the Church of Santa Rita in Havana. Sometimes there are 40 or more. At the end of the service they file to the rear of the church. Standing before the shrine to Santa Rita, the women recite the Lord's Prayer.
Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)
GJELTEN: The Ladies in White then move outside for their weekly demonstration, if that's what it can be called. They silently march up and down the street, two by two, in front of the church. Each woman carries a single gladiola.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
GJELTEN: The routine has been the same through five years, but last month five of the women tried something different. They went together to the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana, aiming to deliver a letter to Cuba's interior minister. When the police told them to leave, the women sat down and linked arms. After a few minutes the police carried them away. Laura Pullion(ph) was one of the organizers.
Ms. LAURA PULLION (Ladies in White): (Spanish spoken)
GJELTEN: They didn't hit us, she says, but they were rough with us. Look, she says, you can still see the marks on my arms.
Generally the women have avoided confronting Cuban authorities directly. This incident was also a departure from custom in that the decision to go to the plaza was made by just a few of the group's members. Miriam Laiva(ph) is one of the founders of the Ladies in White, but she wasn't told there would be a sit-down protest in Havana's main square.
Ms. MIRIAM LAIVA (Ladies in White): Sometimes there are some Ladies in White that decide to do some things by themselves, and that was what happened. Five Ladies in White decided to go to the Square of the Revolution. They didn't tell others.
GJELTEN: The incident at the plaza was still the subject of conversation among the women on a recent Sunday morning. Berta Soler(ph) was unapologetic about not telling other women about the plan.
Ms. BERTA SOLER (Ladies in White): (Spanish spoken)
GJELTEN: We can't do actions like the one at the plaza as a group, she says. We know from experience that some of the women just won't go along.
Berta says the police break-up of the plaza protest furthered the women's cause. It got more attention than any of the recent peaceful Sunday morning protests, and it showed the repressiveness of the Cuban regime.
Ms. SOLER: (Spanish spoken)
GJELTEN: There's nothing else the government can do with us, she says. They had to drag us away. We won because they were forced to recognize us.
But there is another way to look at the plaza protest. It was just five women. Fidel Castro has ridiculed dissident organizations in Cuba as groupusculos(ph), micro-groups, and therefore insignificant. Plus, Miriam Laiva says the fact of being dragged away by police is not something that necessarily works in the women's favor.
Ms. LAIVA: I don't think that confrontational tactics are adequate with the Cuban government because that gives them the possibility to take us to prison, say we're just trying to create a problem in the streets and that's an alibi for them.
GJELTEN: Laiva is a former Cuban diplomat whose husband was one of those arrested in 2003. She argues that a strength of the Ladies in White Movement over the last five years has been that the government had no excuse to move against them because they were so peaceful.
Ms. LAIVA: I think that is why we have a space in Cuban society and that's why the government has to admit us walking in the streets and demanding. It's the first time that the Cuban government has accepted the fact that someone has the right to go out and demand openly and speak out.
GJELTEN: The question of whether to build a broad-based movement or focus on small high profile actions is one opposition activists around the world debate. Politically there is no correct answer. But something else happened that gave the conflict in Cuba a new twist. Three days before the sit-down protest at the plaza, Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida called some of the women from Miami to express solidarity with their cause.
Laura Pullion, the main organizer of the plaza incident, took the call during a meeting at her house.
Ms. PULLION: (Spanish spoken)
GJELTEN: We thanked her, she says. We never dreamed a congresswoman would call us at this humble house in central Havana. It motivated us, she says.
Unbeknownst to the women, the Cuban police taped the call. Immediately following the plaza incident, they released bits of the recording, saying Ros-Lehtinen prompted the women to stage their sit-down action. Pullion says the charge is absurd. But the debate over protest methods now extends to the issue of what ties the Ladies in White should have with their U.S. supporters.
Some of the women chose not to participate in the phone call with Ros-Lehtinen, citing it as a distraction from the focus on their imprisoned husbands. The dispute is growing increasingly bitter. For years the Ladies in White movement has taken pride in its incorporation of women from varying political perspectives. The events of the past few weeks are testing that principle like never before.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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