Thus was born the Ladies in White, a group of women who, through peaceful struggle, demanded and achieved the release of all the prisoners of conscience. At first it seemed a tiny, disjointed movement, given the long miles separating one woman from another. But the ladies’ indignation functioned as a unifying element, and their marches through the streets of Havana, each woman dressed in white and carrying a gladiolus, followed Sunday after Sunday for more than seven years. One voice stood out among them, that of a diminutive blue-eyed woman who taught Spanish and literature to teenagers.
Laura Pollan was emerging as the spokeswoman and leader of the Ladies in White, which focused on human rights and the release of their relatives. In a country that has always been moved by the polarization of its ideological discourse, the Ladies in White were different from their inception. Instead of party platforms, the women displayed only the desire to embrace their loved ones. They did not choose to organize themselves around a doctrine but rather around the unassailable position of family affection. Thus they won a great deal of sympathy among the population of the island, and so, of course, provoked the authorities into a campaign of defamation and insults against them.
If one group has been denigrated to a fault in the Cuban media, it is the Ladies in White. The regime has launched a kind of media war against the women, backed by experiments in intimidation. “Repudiation rallies” — busloads of “spontaneous” protesters called in to scream insults at and even beat their targets — made Pollan’s front door their highest altar. Official journalists called them “The Ladies in Green,” an allusion to the economic support they received from Cubans in exile in order to take food to their imprisoned husbands. Meanwhile, the Cuban government didn’t hesitate to dip into its national coffers for every kind of political attack; part of this money — which could have gone to feed Cubans — was spent ferreting out every cent that reached the hands of these women in need.
The national press continued to denigrate Pollan even on Oct. 7, when she was admitted into the intensive care unit of a Havana hospital with aching bones, shortness of breath and extreme weakness.
Given the seriousness of her condition, government officials asked her family if the patient could be transferred to a luxury clinic designed for the military. But Pollan herself said, before losing consciousness in an induced coma, “I want to stay in the hospital of the people.” And there she died on Oct. 14, after a five-day delay in diagnosing dengue fever, in a country that has been experiencing an intense outbreak of the disease for months now.