Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Founder of Women in White Drops Out

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Aug 18 2008 (IPS) - Miriam Leiva, one of the founders of the Cuban movement Women in White, announced Monday that she was leaving the group of wives, mothers and sisters of imprisoned dissidents to dedicate herself to “independent journalism.”

In a short statement distributed to several foreign media outlets, Leiva did not explain her decision, and it was not possible to locate her at her home to obtain further details.

The activist is the wife of Oscar Espinoza Chepe, one of 75 dissidents sentenced to lengthy terms in 2003, who was later released on parole for medical reasons.

Saying that she wanted to spend more time writing, Leiva added that although she would no longer be “committed” to the decisions and statements of the Women in White, she would continue to “proudly” consider herself one of the group’s founders.

In a telephone conversation with IPS, Laura Pollán, one of the group’s spokeswomen, said she was already aware of Leiva’s decision. “We will feel her absence, because she is a very competent, knowledgeable person, but we respect her choice,” she said.

Pollán also said Leiva’s decision would not affect the unity of the group. “There have been no clashes or disagreements among us, I want to make that clear,” said the activist, who is married to Héctor Maseda, a dissident sentenced to 20 years in prison in the summary trials in 2003.

Leiva clarified that she would remain committed to the struggle for the “immediate release” of the rest of the 75 dissidents who were convicted of conspiring with the United States to undermine the Cuban government. Of the original group, 55 remain in prison.

According to Leiva, nine of the 20 who were paroled “for health reasons, and who remain in Cuba, can be sent back to prison at any moment.” The rest of the prisoners who were released are living abroad, with the exception of Miguel Valdés Tamayo, who died of a heart attack in January 2007.

“We will also continue the struggle. As long as there are political prisoners, there will be Women in White,” said Pollán, whose home in Havana serves as a frequent meeting-place for the female relatives of the imprisoned dissidents.

Dressed in white, the women attend mass every Sunday at the Santa Rita church, named after the patron saint of lost causes, and then march several blocks along Quinta Avenida, on the west side of the capital, demanding the release of their husbands, fathers and brothers.

Last April, Pollán and nine other Women in White staging a sit-in near the famous Plaza de la Revolución – where government ministries and many other important buildings are located – to demand a face-to-face meeting with the authorities were forcibly removed by female police officers.

According to Granma, the ruling Communist Party daily newspaper, the removal of the protesters was aimed at averting a confrontation with the public. In the past, the Women in White have been shouted at on the streets by angry government supporters.

In the Granma article published on that occasion, the protesters were described as “mercenary elements” who were staging “an insolent provocation” on the edge of the Plaza de la Revolución. The paper also linked the women to sectors of the right-wing Cuban exile community in the United States.

A month later, the Women in White found themselves implicated in a case in which the government demanded that the United States provide explanations for what it described as “obscure ties” between U.S. diplomatic personnel in Havana, “terrorist” groups in Miami and members of dissident organisations.

Three programmes were aired by Cuban television – which is a state monopoly – in mid-May exhibiting the results of an investigation that allegedly showed that diplomats at the U.S. Interests Section ferried money from abroad to dissident groups in Cuba, including the Women in White.

Pollán was one of the people who had signed a receipt for funds from the United States. She said at the time that she did not know where the money came from.

But authorities in Cuba said they had evidence that the funds, brought in via diplomatic pouch by Interest Section officials, came from the Legal Rescue Foundation, an organisation based in Miami, Florida and headed by Cuban-American citizen Santiago Álvarez.

Álvarez, who is in prison in the United States for weapons possession and other offences, is a long-time anti-Castro activist with a record of violent action against Cuba.

Pollán told the press at the time that the money, to be distributed among 18 women in her movement, was given to them by Martha Beatriz Roque, a dissident with radical views who heads the Assembly for the Promotion of Civil Society.

On that occasion, she told IPS that “at no time” did the Women in White know that the funds “had anything to do with Santiago Álvarez.”

“Martha Beatriz brought it to us, and it was humanitarian aid from the Legal Rescue Foundation,” she said.

“We didn’t know that Álvarez was the main benefactor,” said Pollán,

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