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Ladies in White Refuse to Be Silenced at Americas Summit

By: Elisa Vásquez - @elisavasquez88 - Apr 9, 2015, 1:42 pm
Bertha Soler asistió a un encuentro organizado por la Fundación para los Derechos Humanos en Cuba en el cual discutió sobre el papel de la mujer en la lucha democrática cubana. (PanAm Post)
Bertha Soler believes that US-Cuba talks should be conditional on democratic concessions by Havana. (PanAm Post)

EspañolBertha Soler, the leader of Cuban dissident organization Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) is one of those independently representing the island in the Civil Society Forum of the seventh Summit of the Americas this week in Panama City.

On Wednesday, shortly after being interviewed by the PanAm Post, the group was attacked by a group of their compatriots who were attending the summit in defense of Cuban government policies. The group argued that they wouldn’t remain at the forum if the members of the opposition did so, branding them “mercenaries” and “terrorists.”

But despite attempts by pro-Castro groups to discredit dissidents even beyond Cuba’s borders, Soler plans to stay at the Summit and issue her demands: for free and fair elections in Cuba, the freedom of political prisoners, and the inspection of local jails by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

From 2013 to 2014, arbitrary detentions in Cuba increased by 38 percent, and 50 political prisoners are still awaiting their freedom, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN).

Soler, who began the Ladies in White movement in 2003 after her husband was arrested and condemned to 20 years in jail — he was later freed in 2011 — will also ask in the Summit that ongoing talks between Washington and Havana are held with conditions.

“At the very same moment that the United States government is sitting down with the Cuban authorities, the latter are beating up men and women simply for promoting and defending the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” she told the PanAm Post.

What hope do you have for the results of the Summit of the Americas?

Bertha Soler asistió a un encuentro organizado por la <a href="http://www.fhrcuba.org/es/2015/04/nota-de-prensa-fhrc-anuncia-nombres-de-los-participantes-de-su-delegacion-ante-la-vii-cumbre-de-las-americas/" target="_blank">Fundación para los Derechos Humanos en Cuba</a> en el cual discutió sobre el papel de la mujer en la lucha democrática cubana. (<em>PanAm Post</em>)
Bertha Soler attending discussed the role of women in Cuba’s pro-democracy struggle at a meeting organized by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba. (PanAm Post)

I can’t talk much about hope, but we have to give many thanks to the Panamanian government, a government that has been democratically elected by the people.

We must also thank Panamanians; they have both given us the opportunity to participate in this forum that will be historic for us. We’re never going to forget it.

In which forums will you participate?

We’ll be attending the Civil Society Forum. For us it’s very important that leaders can hear that all of them have been democratically elected apart from the Cuban government.

For us it’s very important that they hear our demands, our complaints, and that they know the truth from our voices: that the Cuban people need freedom and respect for human rights.

This is also a great opportunity to interact with many people from different countries in Latin America.

Our message is primarily the unconditional freedom of all political prisoners, respect for human rights, that they agree to political, economic, cultural, and social concessions, and that they hold free and multi-party elections in which we can choose who will be our next president. We also want the hostility, the beatings, and the repression of the totalitarian government of Raúl Castro against civil society to stop.

Do you have any demands for the United States, and regarding Cuba’s participation in the Summit? 

We Ladies in White are working in a Forum for Freedom, where we have the same demands that I mentioned before. We’re asking that the relations between the Cuban government and the United States are made conditional on reform. If there are no conditions, there will just be more of the same.

At the very same moment that the United States government is sitting down with the Cuban authorities, the latter are beating up men and women simply for promoting and defending the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We want the International Red Cross to inspect all Cuban jails, because the government has never allowed them to enter. We want them to come and see whatever prison they want to, and not for the Cuban government to show them a pre-selected and prepared jail.

Ladies in White recently held internal elections in which you were confirmed in your post. What did this process achieve?

For us it’s been very important, given that without any political training, without living in a country where democracy exists, we’ve been able to hold a recall referendum as in any place around the world.

It makes us more legitimate, we’re maturing as an organization. And once more we’re demanding that the Cuban government does the same as us: that it holds a recall referendum or free and plural elections, which the people of Cuba need to have an elected leader or president.

Is the organization growing?

We can now report that we have 222 Ladies in White the length and breadth of the country. Little by little we have new supporters in different areas. We have internal procedures that we’re going to reinforce in order to to perfect our organization, improve it, and make it more organized.

At the same time, membership is always conditional on a trial period of three months, to see if we’re dealing with conscientious and well-prepared women, who have the ability and principles to continue our peaceful struggle with us.

Have you met in Cuba with representatives of the US government?

We’ve sat down with Senator Patrick Leahy, with representatives from the State Department, and other delegations.

The most important thing is that they listen to us, because we’re in a country where they will never listen to us — they’re only going to repress us.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

Elisa Vásquez Elisa Vásquez

Elisa Vásquez is a Venezuelan journalist with experience covering social and community topics. Her specialty is human rights education and international solidarity. She reports from Panama City. Follow her on Twitter @elisavasquez88.