Eight years late, Cuba’s Ladies in White pick up Sakharov prize in Brussels

Brussels, Belgium (4/23.2013): (l-r) Belkis Cantillo Ramírez, Laura Labrado, and Spaniards Elena Larrinaga and Blanca Reyes Castañón, members of the Ladies in White, hold hands during the European Parliament session that awarded the group the Sakharov Prize.
Brussels, Belgium (4/23.2013): (l-r) Belkis Cantillo Ramírez, Laura Labrado, and Spaniards Elena Larrinaga and Blanca Reyes Castañón, members of the Ladies in White, hold hands during the European Parliament session that awarded the group the Sakharov Prize.
Julien Warnand / EFE

Cuba’s Ladies in White finally received their Sakharov prize Tuesday, in a ceremony delayed by Havana for eight years but described by the head of the European Parliament as proof that “no dictatorship in the world can stop democracy.”

“Our dignity is much bigger than the hatred of those who repress us,” Laura Labrada, daughter of the group’s late founder Laura Pollán, declared during the emotional session at the parliament’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

The Ladies in White were awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2005, but Cuban authorities did not allow them to travel to Brussels to pick it up. A change in Cuban travel rules in January meant they could finally travel to Europe.

Labrada, Ladies in White leader Berta Soler and member Belkis Cantillo walked onto the parliament floor dressed in the group’s traditional white clothing and with their right hands high in the air made the “L” of liberty with thumbs and index fingers.

Blanca Reyes, who represents the women’s group in Spain and picked up the 50,000-euro (now $65,000) prize money in 2005, also attended the European Parliament’s session, which was broadcast live by Radio and TV Marti.

Soler told a news conference before the ceremony that the European Union must keep up its tough policy on Cuba and maintain its “Common Position,” which ties any improvement in EU policies toward the island to Havana’s human rights record.

Although President Raúl Castro has launched some reforms, Cuba “lamentably continues to be the only Latin American country that does not tolerate any type of democratic opposition,” Parliament President Martin Schulz declared.

Pollán founded the Ladies in White for the wives, mothers, daughters and other female relatives of a group of 75 peaceful dissidents sentenced to long prison terms during a crackdown in 2003 known as Cuba’s Black Spring. Their marches after Sunday masses at the Santa Rita church in Havana became the only public protest regularly tolerated by the communist government.

The last of the 75 dissidents was freed from prison in 2011, the same year that Pollán died, and all but about a dozen left for Spain. But the remaining women, plus dozens of new “support ladies,” are now active in virtually every major city on the island.

Cantillo’s husband, Jose Daniel Ferrer, was freed in 2011 and went on to found the Cuban Patriotic Union, now one of the most active dissident groups in Cuba. He launched a hunger strike last week to demand the release of about 30 jailed supporters.

Soler accepted the Sakharov prize, named after a famous Soviet dissident, before calling for a minute of silence to honor Pollán and Oswaldo Payá, who won the 2003 version of the prize and was killed in a car crash last year.

Cuba allowed Payá to pick up his prize but then cracked down on travel abroad by dissidents. Guillermo Fariñas, winner of the 2010 prize, was also blocked from picking up his award that year but is expected to do so in the next few months.

Schulz noted the delay of eight years in the women’s trip to Brussels but said it “showed the valor you have displayed in your work, and that no dictatorship in the world can stop democracy.”

He praised the group as “the symbol of the Cubans’ resistance against the Cuban government” and pointed to reports by human rights activists that the number of arbitrary arrests for political reasons climbed to a record 6,602 last year.

“If the governing cupola believes it has the full backing of the people, if they really believe what they say in public, then they would not need those kinds of numbers,” Schulz added.

Labrada dismissed the Raúl Castro reforms as “insignificant little changes” and said the gladiolas the Ladies in White carry in their marches are “a symbol of the spring that is approaching our homeland.”

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