Ladies in White march in Cuba, pay price for disobedience
Posted on Wed, May. 03, 2006
Ladies in White march in Cuba, pay price for disobedience
BY GARY MARX
HAVANA – On a recent Sunday, Katia Martin rose a few minutes after 7
a.m. and donned a white T-shirt with a photograph of her imprisoned
husband stenciled on the front.
Martin dressed her twin daughters in matching pink outfits and fed them
yogurt before opening the front door to her one-room, rooftop apartment.
She gazed out over the neighboring rooftops like a soldier scanning
First she glanced to the right to see if a yellow window shutter on a
nearby building was ajar, then to her left at the nearest street corner,
and, finally, down through a tangle of electrical cables to a
On this day the coast appeared to be clear, but that was no guarantee.
So Martin proceeded with caution to prepare for Mass at Santa Rita
church across town.
Each Sunday for the last nine months, Martin often has not been allowed
to join a group of women calling themselves the Damas de Blanco – Ladies
in White – who after Mass silently walk the streets for 10 blocks in
civil disobedience. They are protesting the jailing of family members
involved in Cuba’s tiny opposition movement.
The Sunday march of the Ladies in White constitutes one of the few
regular anti-government demonstrations on the island.
Because of her activism, Martin often has been prevented from leaving
her home on Sundays and at other times under de facto house arrest
imposed on her by neighbors and others who consider her a
counterrevolutionary, an action known as an “act of repudiation.” Martin
was at one point trapped in her apartment building for four days.
“They come and threaten me at the building’s front door,” said Martin,
25, whose husband, activist Ricardo Santiago Medina, has been jailed
since July. “It’s like a kidnapping. I constantly feel persecuted.”
Martin is one of a small number of Cubans who have taken a big risk by
crossing the line from privately musing about the flaws in their society
to becoming an activist in an authoritarian state.
Human-rights experts say the risk of dissent has intensified as Cuban
authorities continue jailing opposition figures while mobilizing
pro-government groups to intimidate those who remain on the outside.
Leaders of the Ladies in White say pro-government crowds have gathered
outside the homes of several dissident women to stop them from attending
the Sunday march and other protests.
Four others have been pulled off public buses or otherwise prevented
from traveling to Havana for the march, while others have been warned by
police not to participate.
“They want to sow fear,” said Laura Pollan, wife of imprisoned activist
Martin’s four-day ordeal occurred in mid-March, when about a dozen
government supporters stood guard at her door to prevent her from
attending events commemorating the third anniversary of the imprisonment
of 75 dissidents.
By the afternoon of the fourth day, Martin said, her children were going
“stir crazy.” She decided to test her luck.
Martin descended the narrow stairwell with her daughters in tow and
pulled open the apartment building’s large wooden front door.
The pro-government crowd pressed in.
“You’re a worm!” one woman shouted only inches from Martin’s face.
“You’re a paid agent of the U.S. government!” another screamed at her.
Martin quickly turned back inside the building but moments later
appeared on a balcony above.
“There are more than 300 political prisoners in Cuba for nothing – only
because they think differently!” she hollered at the group. “Why don’t
you defend the political prisoners?”
The protesters shouted back at Martin, calling her a mercenary and a
freeloader who betrayed a revolution that has given Cubans universal
health care and other benefits.
Speaking to a reporter, one pro-government demonstrator said, “We’ve
been here 24 hours a day. We sleep in the street right here to defend
One of the protest leaders was Isabel Prieto, 70, who lives on the
street behind Martin’s apartment and serves as a local coordinator of
watchdog groups established by Cuban authorities on every block nationwide.
In a later interview, Prieto described Martin as a counterrevolutionary
who cannot be allowed to “act against the government.”
“We didn’t hurt her. We didn’t strike her. But she couldn’t leave her
apartment,” Prieto said. “As long as she doesn’t threaten our rights,
she can do what she wants.”
As Prieto strolled past the neighborhood’s decaying buildings, she
boasted: “Look around. Everyone here is free. You can see it. They are
playing dominoes. They are playing baseball.”
Down the block, just past the entrance to Martin’s building, a young
woman stood in an alley.
“I don’t want to get involved in this,” she whispered to a reporter,
ducking further into the alley. “I don’t have anything against her
(Martin). She respects me and I respect her.”
The woman said she opposed the demonstrations against Martin but is
afraid to take a public stand because she lives on remittances sent by
relatives abroad and fears Cuban authorities could cut off the money.
Martin said a neighbor often notes when she comes and goes, and
informants follow her to the store to see what she buys.
“There is always someone trailing me,” she said, though Prieto denied
Martin is under surveillance.
“They have no moral authority to point their finger at me,” Martin
added. “I haven’t committed any crime. But they act in favor of the
government, so they can do illegal things.”
Martin alleged that Prieto sells stolen produce on the black market to
earn extra cash.
Prieto called the accusation a lie.
“You understand, it’s she (Martin) that is the problem, not us,” Prieto
Firing back, pro-government supporters spread vicious rumors about
Martin, accusing her of adultery while her husband is incarcerated and
claiming she gets money from the U.S. government for her dissident
Martin dismisses the charges.
“They are trying to discredit me,” she said. “They can’t do anything else.”
On this Sunday, the street below was empty when Martin descended the
stairwell at 9:30 a.m. to attend Mass and, afterward, march for about 30
minutes, a pink gladiolus held aloft, with the Ladies in White.
Stepping out from her art deco apartment building, Martin had glanced
around nervously before clasping her children’s hands and walking up the
“We are all prisoners in this island,” she said.