Laura Poll n obituary
Laura PollA n leading the Ladies in White in November 2010. Her husband was released three months later.
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#1 Oct 20, 2011
Laura Pollán obituaryLeader of the Ladies in White, the Cuban women who fought for their menfolk's liberty
reddit this Carrie Gibson guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 19 October 2011 13.34 EDT Article history
Laura Pollán leading the Ladies in White in November 2010. Her husband was released three months later. Photograph: Javier Galeano/AP
The Cuban activist Laura Pollán Toledo, who has died aged 63 of a heart attack, was a quiet schoolteacher who became the leader of an internationally recognised protest movement the Ladies in White after her husband was imprisoned in 2003. Although a latecomer to politics, Pollán became a symbol of the growing discontent with Fidel Castro's regime.
She was once a believer in the aims of the Cuban revolution. Born in the eastern city of Manzanillo just over a decade before the 1959 guerilla war that brought Castro to power, Pollán, like many others of her generation, grew up as a supporter of the regime. She said in an interview with the Sunday Times in 2005 that when she was 12, she volunteered to join a government programme that sent nearly a million Cuban schoolchildren to live with illiterate peasant families in order to teach them to read and write. The experience made a deep impression on her, and she trained to become a teacher, specialising in Spanish and literature.
Pollán lived in Havana with her husband, Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, a journalist who was involved with the Liberal Democrat party, a banned opposition group. Their home in Calle Neptuno was often full of dissidents who met with Maseda to discuss the island's politics. However, Pollán said at this time she was not interested in what her husband and his friends were doing. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor in 2008, she claimed that she preferred to stay in the kitchen making coffee when the conversation became "too political".
But the political turned deeply personal during the primavera negra, or black spring, of March 2003. This was a government crackdown on journalists and others involved in the dissident movement, which led to the imprisonment of 75 men, including Maseda, who was sentenced to 20 years on charges of acting against the territorial integrity of the state. Pollán quit her job and devoted her energies to organising a group calling for the prisoners' release, which became known as the Damas de Blanco, or the Ladies in White. Her home was once again filled with political discussion.
#2 Oct 20, 2011
Each Sunday this group of women, composed of wives, mothers and other family members of the prisoners, attend mass at the Catholic church of Santa Rita a patron saint of hopeless causes in the Miramar neighbourhood of Havana. After the service, each woman, dressed in white, carrying a gladiolus, and often wearing a T-shirt with a photograph of her imprisoned spouse or relative printed on it, walks in silence for 10 blocks to a nearby park.
While this weekly vigil quickly won international admiration, Pollán and her group faced hostility from the Cuban government and official media. They were sometimes called the Women in Green alluding to claims that the group's funding came from Cuban exiles in the US and they were often obliged to march past jeering crowds in government-organised counter-demonstrations. But their silent protest persisted.
The Ladies in White were championed by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists. In 2005 the women won the European parliament's Sakharov prize for freedom of thought, though Pollán was not permitted to leave Cuba to accept the award. In 2008 she sent Castro a copy of her husband's memoir, Buried Alive, which he had smuggled out to her a page at a time.
By the start of 2010, only about 25 of the prisoners had been released, despite increasing international pressure and the continued Sunday vigil. However, in July that year, representatives of the Catholic church successfully negotiated with Raúl Castro who had taken over as president from his brother in 2008 for the release of the remaining prisoners. Many then went into exile, though some, including Maseda, refused. He was finally able to return to his home with Pollán last February.
In April the US government presented the Ladies in White with the Human Rights Defenders award. Although the group has achieved its goal, it continues to stage its weekly march to raise awareness of other political prisoners. Pollán told the Associated Press in September that the Ladies in White would persevere: "We are fighting for freedom and human rights."
She is survived by her husband and a daughter, Laura Maria, from a previous marriage.
Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, teacher and activist, born 13 February 1948; died 14 October 2011
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