La Havana, Cuba – The ashes of Laura Pollan, the talismanic leader of Cuba’s Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) human rights movement, were recently laid to rest under a pine tree on Havana’s Quinta Avenida.
The former English and Spanish literature teacher had spent the last eight years of her life leading massive protests on that spot, agitating for the release of the 75 journalists and political dissidents sentenced to life in jail on treason charges during the so-called Black Spring arrests of 2003.
“Pine trees never stop growing, and nor will her ideas. So it was the perfect place for her to rest,” smiled her daughter, also called Laura Pollan, a 48-year-old single mother and former business owner.
The timing of the memorial service, however, landed its attendees in jail.
“We had chosen the date as the 13th anniversary of the Black Spring arrests,” she explained. “That anniversary and Obama’s visit to Cuba were enough for the authorities to want to send a message. The police were waiting for us outside our houses on Sunday.”
The family says that the arrests were the latest in a long line of aggressive acts against them. Indeed, Pollan attributes her mother’s death in 2011 to one particularly violent act of repression.
“I was with her and 30 other Damas de Blanco in Santiago de Cuba in August of that year,” she recalled.
“We had gone three blocks from a church there when we ran into a crowd of paramilitaries, who gave us a terrible beating. Our principles are based on Gandhi’s, so we don’t fight back, but this was a ferocious attack.
“I saw photos later of somebody pressing my mother against a wall, scratching and biting at her wrist. Soon after this, she fell ill, and died in hospital.
“There’s no way of proving this for sure, but the government was scared of my mother. They knew she could move people.”
The loss was particularly hard to take for engineer and journalist Hector Masada, 73, the elder Laura Pollan’s life partner, stepfather to her daughter, and one of the last of the 75 Black Spring prisoners to be released.
Tall, slim and articulate, he spent eight years in prison – punctuated by long spells of solitary confinement and vicious beatings – which do not seem to have taken their toll on him in the way that his wife’s death has.
“For every year I spent in jail, I had one month reunited with her,” he said with a resigned shrug, during an interview in the sparsely furnished house in Havana Centro from which his wife led the Damas de Blanco movement. On one wall hangs her distinctive white T-shirt and hat, the uniform that gave her movement its name.
“She gave her blood, sweat and tears for us when we were inside, and she made enough noise that Raul Castro [the country’s president] couldn’t ignore the pressure and had to let us out.
“She was a source of such strength to me. She and I had such a deep affinity: all we had to do was exchange a look during a meeting and we would be able to speak for one another.”
Masada was an early proponent of the revolutionary movement – “I’ve been in both [1950s dictator Fulgencio] Batista’s and Castro’s cells, and Batista’s were more spacious,” he smiled. His disillusionment with the island’s one-party communist system came in the early 1980s, after he refused to participate in a government-approved protest targeting the relatives of Cuban exiles.
“Soon afterwards, I received a visit from the police, who wanted to know why I hadn’t gone to the protest,” he told Al Jazeera. “I told them that I was paid to conduct research, not to harass people.
“While I’d had my reservations about the system for a while, this was the first time I’d spoken out. Over the years that followed, I started to look for human rights groups, helped to set up the Liberal Party, and eventually lost my job and was arrested.
“Even though I was released for ‘good behaviour’ in 2011, I’m still a prisoner: I’m just not in a cell. I can’t get a passport, I have no right to property, and every week the police flood my street to make sure I’m not organising anything.”
After finding himself in prison at the age of 15 for supporting Castro, Masada feels betrayed by the former president of Cuba.
“This is not Marxism,” he said. “This is tyranny. Batista was a killer and a torturer, but Castro directs his violence against the entire population.”
During his state visit to Cuba, US President Barack Obama called for an end to the trade embargo which has stymied Cuba’s economic growth over the past half a century, as well as meeting with pro-democracy groups. His speech at the Casa de la Revolucion also struck a clearly liberalising note.
For Masada and his stepdaughter, however, neither Obama’s meeting with dissidents nor his speech went far enough.
“The groups he met are funded by the US government anyway,” said Masada, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “It’s logical that he would meet with them.”
“Obama gave a brave, valuable speech, but he was wrong to say ‘Change depends on Cubans’. When we live under such suffocation, we need help from outside,” said Laura Pollan.
Since last year, Pollan has led a small offshoot of her mother’s organisation, pushing for greater knowledge of and demand for human rights among Cubans, and remaining true to her mother’s feminist principles and commitment to non-violence.
The group gathers regularly on the Quinta Avenida, issuing leaflets, reading the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and withstanding the beatings and tear-gas canisters of the Cuban police.
“My mother wanted to show how strong women can be,” said Pollan. “I don’t want that compromised.
“What she believed in still touches my heart. She is with us still. I’ve been beaten for her, I’ve been to jail for her, I’ve lost my job for her. People still get tears in their eyes talking about her impact. That makes me proud.”