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Laura Pollan, founder of Cuban protest group, dies

Cuban dissident Laura Pollan, who founded the opposition group Ladies in White and for nearly a decade staged weekly protest marches with other wives of political prisoners to press for their release, died Friday, fellow dissidents said. She was 63.
Image: Leader of Cuban opposition group 'Ladies in White' died
Cuban dissident Laura Pollan is shown at her home in Matanzas, Cuba, in June 2010. Pollan, leader of the opposition group "Damas de Blanco" — Ladies in White — died Friday in a hospital in Havana, Cuba. Alejandro Ernesto / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Cuban dissident Laura Pollan, who founded the opposition group Ladies in White and for nearly a decade staged weekly protest marches with other wives of political prisoners to press for their release, died Friday, fellow dissidents said. She was 63.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said he spoke by phone with Pollan's family and they confirmed her death.

"For now what we know is that she had a (cardiorespiratory) attack and she didn't come out of it," Sanchez said. "Right now we're in the process of learning whether there will be an autopsy or not."

Pollan was hospitalized Oct. 7 for acute respiratory problems and had been in intensive care ever since.

Earlier Friday, her daughter, Laura Labrada, said Pollan had undergone a tracheotomy to help her breathe. She added that doctors had discovered a strain of dengue, but said an aggressive respiratory virus was the main problem. Phone calls to family members rang unanswered Friday night.

Pollan was one of the best-known and most vocal opposition figures in a country where those who dissent publicly risk reprisals or imprisonment. Even after the Ladies accomplished the goal for which they were founded — their husbands' freedom — the group continued to protest against the government, which excoriated the women as traitors doing the bidding of the United States.

"She was a teacher and a housewife, but she became a leader for civil rights," said Sanchez, a prominent human rights activist on the island. "She has played a fundamental role, without a doubt even beyond winning freedom for her husband."

Few can remember a time Pollan was seen in any color other than white, but before 2003 she was a nearly anonymous high school literature teacher who loved cats and plants. She steered clear of politics and was reluctant about her husband's dissident activities.

Then the government struck with one of the biggest crackdowns on dissent in decades, arresting her husband, Hector Maseda, and 74 other activists, social commentators and opposition leaders, accusing them of accepting money from the U.S. and other foreign sources for counterrevolutionary activities. Known as the Group of 75, they received sentences ranging from six to 28 years, prompting international condemnation. The European Union froze relations with Cuba for more than a year.

The arrests sparked the creation of the Ladies in White and began Pollan's transformation from activist's spouse to agitator in her own right.

In the weeks afterward, Pollan walked around the places where she thought her husband might be in custody. Sometimes she ran into other women doing the same, and they started gathering at her home in a gritty Havana neighborhood.

Over the years the Ladies grew from a dozen initial members to about 30, using Pollan's home as a center of operations and refuge for those visiting from the provinces. Its front door was nearly always open, revealing a front living room full of white-clad women, its walls decorated with pictures of their husbands.

The Ladies soon began marching through the leafy Havana district of Miramar each Sunday after Mass at the Church of Santa Rita, patron saint of impossible causes, clad in white and carrying gladiolas.

"We fight for the freedom of our husbands, the union of our families," Pollan said in 2005. "We love our men."

The same year, the European Union honored the group with its top human rights distinction, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. That angered the Cuban government, which did not allow Pollan to travel to Europe to accept the award.

As the Ladies' fame grew, so did the pressure. Some of the imprisoned men were moved to faraway lockups, while others were assigned phone privileges only on Sundays when the women were marching.

Authorities accused the women of taking money from foreign groups, a charge that was ominously similar to the one that saw their husbands jailed. Pollan acknowledged getting some funds from anti-Castro exile groups in the United States, but said the Ladies had no choice with husbands in prison and other family members blacklisted from state jobs.

After a few years, the Ladies began finding their marches confronted by crowds of government supporters yelling insults and profanities. Cuba's government contended such "acts of repudiation" were spontaneous outpourings of patriotic indignation, though little effort was made to mask coordination between the counter-demonstrators and state security agents who were always on hand. The marchers were sometimes detained briefly or herded onto buses and driven home.

Over the years, some of the 75 men were released on medical and other grounds, but about 50 remained behind bars in July 2010, when the Roman Catholic Church announced that the rest would be freed under a deal with the government following a meeting between Cardinal Jaime Ortega, then-Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and Cuban President Raul Castro.

In the ensuing months, the men were gradually freed. Many flew into exile with their families, though about a dozen refused to leave the island. One of those was Pollan's husband, Maseda, who walked out of prison Feb. 12, 2011, among the last to be freed.

On March 21 — the same day that Fidel Castro said he had stepped down as head of the island's Communist Party — the Catholic Church announced the release of the last two prisoners covered by the agreement.

It was the Ladies' greatest victory, but it also robbed them of the cause they were created for. Some of the dissidents and their families were now far away in exile, reducing the group's already tiny presence on the island.

Even the chief U.S. diplomat on the island has acknowledged that the dissidents were struggling to be relevant, describing the opposition in an April 2009 cable revealed by the group WikiLeaks as old, torn by petty rivalries and hopelessly out of touch with most Cubans.

Yet Pollan and the Ladies carried on, even expanding their protests outside the capital. She said they were refocusing their message on winning freedom for others behind bars for politically motivated but violent crimes such as hijacking or sabotage, acts that keep them from being recognized by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience.

"We are going to continue. We are fighting for freedom and human rights," Pollan told The Associated Press.

"As long as this government is around there will be prisoners," she said. "Because while they've let some go, they've put others in jail. It is a never-ending story."

Born Feb. 13, 1948 in the eastern city of Manzanillo, Pollan was a small, round woman with conspicuous green eyes and dyed-blond hair. She spoke in a soft voice that could suddenly turn cutting when she was animated.

A literature teacher until she retired in 2004 and dedicated herself full-time to the struggle on behalf of her husband, Pollan said teaching was what she loved most.

"If I were born again and could do it all over, I would still be a teacher," she once said, according to an undated biography posted on her website.

Ladies in White member Bertha Soler said Pollan died in the evening.

Pollan had the one daughter from a previous marriage.