After appearing before two recent U.S. congressional hearings seeking freedom for political prisoners and respect for human rights in Cuba, the leader of Ladies in White now faces calls for her resignation from exiled members of the organization.
The controversy began after a YouTube video was posted showing a large group of Ladies in White members booing Alejandrina García de la Riva and screaming “Down with traitors!” on Dec. 16 at the organization’s headquarters in Havana.
After entering the building, several women surrounded De La Riva, yelling “traitor” as she remained silent.
De La Riva, who lives in Matanzas, is founder of the movement that was originally started by wives and family members of the 75 dissidents arrested during the spring of 2003. Her husband, Diosdado González Marrero, was one of them, serving a 20-year prison sentence.
De La Riva had expressed disagreement with the direction of the organization, headed by Berta Soler.
Sixteen founders of the movement who live in exile have signed a letter asking Soler to resign and hold elections to give the group a new direction because of the way De La Riva was treated. They called it “an abominable act of repudiation.”
Such actions are signs of “communist” and “fascist” behavior, they say, “and not of people who fight for democracy and human rights.”
The signers of the letter emphasized the “courageous trajectory” of De La Riva “in the struggle to free all members of the group of 75,” and asked that all women who participated in the protest be expelled from the organization.
In Miami, Aniley Puentes, one of the Ladies in White who signed the letter, said that “it was not appropriate” for Soler to continue leading the movement after “having thrown mud on the name of the Ladies in White” with “this act of repudiation typical of Communist behavior.”
Puentes, who left Cuba for Spain in 2010 with her husband, former political prisoner Fidel Suárez Cruz, and a year later moved to Miami, said that she was unaware how Soler was elected to head the movement after the death of Laura Pollán in 2011.
“We don’t know how Berta was elected,” she said. “We were not consulted and we don’t know the way to hold an election in Cuba. If Berta resigns, which I doubt, it must be a problem of the women there to hold an election.”
Contacted by el Nuevo Herald, Soler dismissed the request for her resignation. “Resign? Never,” she said. “Those who really count here are the women of the Ladies in White movement who live in Cuba, who are more than 250, and they have not considered elections.”
Soler said she “respected the freedom of expression of those women in exile.” She also acknowledged that “maybe the way [the protest] was done was not correct,” but that “it was not an act of repudiation against Alejandrina de la Riva,” but rather a “rejection, because we didn’t want to listen to her and she had been warned” that she had to wait for a meeting with the national board to express her disagreement over Soler’s leadership.
Soler said that De La Riva went to the movement’s headquarters to “provoke a situation” and also referred to the precedent set by the State Security when they used members of opposing groups to attack their leaders. Soler underlined that De La Riva had expressed her opinions previously and that the rejection of her statements prompted the angry reaction of the Ladies in White who were present.
“What would you do with a person who enters a place and is not accepted, not wanted and is asked to leave?” Soler asked. “Call the police, beat her, leave her alone or scream at her?”
Her husband, former political prisoner Ángel Moya, posted on YouTube another clip from the incident where Soler and De La Riva argued over the distribution of food and aid. One of the Ladies in White who was present vehemently denied that Soler had left “food for the State Security” at customs when she returned to Cuba from the United States, as De La Riva claimed.
“It’s important to watch the complete video,” Soler said. “Because the Cuban government only posted a clip to create confusion about the Ladies in White.”
It’s not the only crisis facing the movement, which in 2005 was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Conscience.
In August, Eastern region representative Belkis Cantillo resigned after clashing with Soler, which prompted about 30 women to leave the organization and create a new movement named Citizens for Democracy.
Beyond internal conflicts and divisions, this incident points to a deeper issue in the country’s political life, says Sebastián Arcos, former political prisoner and deputy director of Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute.
“Three generations of Cubans have been living in a political environment where debates have not existed and which constantly incites verbal aggression,” he said. “That is the political culture under which Cubans have grown after 1959. It is not a heritage of the republic; it’s a heritage of the Castro regime.”