11 Cuban dissidents spend Christmas in prison

Laura Pollan
Members of the Cuban dissident group Ladies in White pray at the Santa Rita church before the organization's weekly march in Havana, Cuba, Dec. 26. The 'Ladies in White' is an organization created by wives and mothers of Cuban political prisoners. Franklin Reyes / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It was another lonely Christmas for the wives of 11 imprisoned dissidents slated to be freed under a deal between the Cuban government and the island's Roman Catholic Church, as the holiday came and went with no sign they'd be released anytime soon.

"Christmas is a family holiday, and for eight Christmases, there's been an empty seat at the table. We hope that next year, that won't the case," said Laura Pollan, a leader of the Ladies in White, a group made up of the wives and mothers of the dissidents.

Still, Pollan added, "There's been no sign that any of them are going to be released soon."

She spoke to reporters as about 30 women took part in the group's traditional after-Mass Sunday march.

Under an informal deal announced in July by Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega, 52 activists and social commentators detained in a 2003 crackdown were supposed to be freed, probably by early November. Forty-one have been released, and all but one was sent to Spain.

The 11 still behind bars have said they want to remain in Cuba, a demand some observers see as a possible stumbling block to their release.

"It's clear that the way the government has proceeded is to get the prisoners to agree to leave the country," said Phil Peters, a Cuba specialist at the Lexington Institute near Washington. "Now they're down to the people who don't want to go, so that makes it much more difficult."

Peters said he wasn't particularly worried they had not been freed by Christmas.

"There isn't anything special about the date, except for that the prisoner release has been discussed by the Catholic Church and obviously Christmas is an important date for Catholics," Peters said in a telephone interview. "The government never gave a specific date, so maybe they had a longer period in mind" than the three- to four-month period mentioned by Ortega.

"It's going slowly, but then again, lots of things go slowly in Cuba," Peters said. He added the release of the 11 will be a "very important step" because it would bring the number of political prisoners in Cuba "down to a very low number, or nearly zero."

That was little comfort for the Ladies in White at Christmas time.

"It's a difficult time for us," Bertha Soler told the AP. "It's a sacred time for families and we're still far from ours."

The government alleges all the dissidents are paid by Washington to undermine the political system and says many of them were sentenced for crimes including treason.

Last Thursday, the Church announced that two prisoners not on the list of 52 would be freed and sent to Spain shortly.


Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.