Laura Pollan: Leader of Cuba's 'White Ladies'group of activists


When her husband Héctor Maseda was jailed by Fidel Castro's communist regime along with 74 other dissidents in March 2003, Laura Pollán was a softly spoken 55-year-old teacher of Spanish language and literature at a Havana secondary school. She was looking forward to early retirement the following year to tend her beloved cats and plants.

After Maseda, a dissident journalist and leader of the outlawed Liberal party, was summarily sentenced to 20 years, however, Pollá* soon bumped into other wives, sisters or mothers of the other dissidents trying to find their loved ones. All were held at secret locations and some had been sentenced to up to 28 years. Pollá* decided to found Las Damas de Blanco, the Ladies in White, to campaign for their men's release.

Every Sunday since what they called La Primavera Negra [Black Spring] of 2003, dressed in white and each carrying a single gladiolus, they have defied abuse from Castro supporters to march through Havana. After attending mass at the Church of Saint Rita, patron of seemingly impossible causes, they march down Havana's Fifth Avenue, ending with shouts of "Libertad!"

Protests against Castro were and remain rare and dangerous. What the dissidents describe as turbas [mobs] – reputedly organised by the Communist Party or the Interior Ministry – invariably hassle the women, sometimes violently. As recently as 24 September Pollan was crushed against an outside wall of her house when the Ladies in White attempted to attend mass. She was taken to hospital two weeks later with respiratory problems. Fellow dissidents believe the incident may have contributed to the cardio-respiratory attack from which she died, aged 63, after a week in hospital. State health officials said she had dengue fever.

For their efforts, the Ladies in White were awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament in 2005 but the Castro regime blocked her visa to accept the prize in Strasbourg. With her passion for democracy and her outstanding green eyes, Pollán became the natural leader of what supporters called "a dagger in the middle of the heart of the government." From the initial dozen they swelled to more than 30, using Pollán's home in run-down central Havana as their HQ. Cuba's state media at first ignored the women but later began referring to them as the Ladies in Green, claiming they were "mercenaries", receiving dollars (greenbacks) from the US administration or anti-Castro groups. Pollá* always replied that the women were independent, but forced to take donations from anti-Castro Cubans in the US or whomever else supported their campaign.

In the years after 2003, 25 of the 75 dissident men were released on medical or other grounds but around 50, including Pollan's husband, were still in jail last summer. Castro's handing-over of the Cuban presidency to his brother Raul in 2008 brought a little more pragmatism to the regime and eventually, in July last year after meetings involving Raul Castro, the Catholic Church and the Spanish foreign ministry, Cuba agreed to free the remaining dissidents.

They were released in dribs and drabs, most taking up an offer of exit visas. About a dozen, including Pollán's husband, insisted on staying in Cuba. Raúl Castro finally agreed and Héctor Maseda walked out of prison in February.

Laura Inés Pollá* Toledo was born in the port of Manzanillo. She hada daughter from a first marriage before settling in Havana with Maseda. Despite achieving her initial goal with his release this year, she and her fellow Ladies in White vowed to keep marching. "I started fighting for my husband, then for the group, and now it's for changes for the better of the country," she said. "We found qualities in ourselves we did not know we had."

Last Sunday, the Ladies held their first march through Havana without her, but in her honour.

Laura Inés Pollá* Toledo, teacher and human rights activist: born Manzanillo, Cuba 13 February 1948; married firstly, secondly Héctor Maseda (one daughter); died Havana 14 October 2011.