In 2003 Hector Maseda, leader of the Cuban Liberal party, along with 74 other journalists, librarians and human rights activists, were arrested in what is now known Cuba’s Black Spring. The accused were sentenced to everywhere between 6-28 years of prison. Their crimes? Committing their words about social reforms and human rights in Cuba to paper. The regime swept in and crushed their activities never imagining that the the wives, mothers and daughters of the convicted would band together to form Las Damas de Blanco and make their message soar.
Dressed in white and carrying gladiolas, they walked along Cuba’s historic fifth avenue every Sunday after attending mass at Santa Rita. With a silent march that screamed all the words that were illegal to utter, without saying a word, Las Damas caught the ear of international human rights groups and in 2005 won the Sakharov prize. Eventually, Castro’s cowardly and dishonorable thugs did the only thing they could in the face of such courage. They assaulted them. Routinely. Laura Pollan in particular, Maseda’s wife, caught my attention because she always fearlessly looked straight into the eyes of her oppressors. Without pause, the strength of her gaze was mesmerizing. After each attack, Laura spoke with fierce ease about what the Ladies had endured and with relentless passion doubled down on their unwavering commitment to Cuba’s prisoners of conscience.
A few years ago, after the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo and a particularly brutal beating endured by Las Damas, Spain and the Cuban Catholic church negotiated to release the Black Spring prisoner’s of conscience and forced them into exile. And handful of them, including Laura’s husband refused the expatriation and were released just eight months ago. Laura announced that the Ladies who chose to stay would march until all Cuba’s prisoner’s of conscience were released. And once again, she blew me away. Her courage was astounding.
Although I’ve born witness to great acts of courage, the nature of courage defies description. Like energy, it can’t be created or destroyed and often surprises those it decides to work through. It’s variations are endless but the results of a courageous action, no matter how small, settles a being. Courage doesn’t parade itself but it makes its mark. It’s not easy, but its clarity is as illuminating as it is transcendent.
Laura Pollan died of cardiac arrest in a Havana hospital Friday night after supposedly fighting Dengue fever and respiratory complications for a week. I don’t think Laura ever expected to be a one of Cuba’s greatest patriots but the fates new better and chose this small woman with the roar of a caged lion to take up all of our country’s cause.
Today, I don’t have the words to express how grateful I am for her sacrifice. But I know that one day, Cuba will once again bloom because of it. Paz, luz y progresso Laura. Descansa, que ahora caminaremos nosotros.