In Cuba, the leader of the island's most prominent dissident group has died. Laura Pollan was a founder of the Ladies in White, but her death at age 63 Friday after a brief illness comes at an especially difficult time for Cuba's small opposition movement.
The only officially tolerated act of public protest in Cuba occurs on Sundays, after the Ladies in White gather for mass at the Santa Rita church in Havana.
After a prayer, a few dozen of the women walk out and march in silence along Havana's busy Fifth Avenue, dressed in white and carrying red gladiolas. This Sunday was the first time they were not led by Pollan, a former schoolteacher who became a fearless activist after her husband was jailed in a 2003 crackdown with 74 other dissidents. Pollan organized the prisoners' wives and loved ones into a potent symbol of peaceful opposition, often enduring physical and verbal abuse from government-organized mobs.
"Long live Laura Pollan," the women chanted Sunday after their march, the first time they were also joined by men. At the head of the group was Hector Maseda, Pollan's husband, carrying her portrait. He was freed this spring after eight years in prison.
"The toll on our private lives has been that after eight years of forced separation, we didn't even get eight months together," Maseda said, his eyes welling up. "So I had one month of happiness for every year of separation."
Maseda was one of more than 100 prisoners freed by the Cuban government after leaders of the Catholic Church intervened last year to stop attacks on the Ladies in White. The prisoners' release has left the group struggling to broaden its message beyond freedom for jailed dissidents, while facing new arrests and other reprisals in cities outside Havana.
Sunday's march was the first time in memory that men have participated in any act of public protest without government interference. But the women said it was a one-time event to honor Pollan. Silberio Portal Contreras was one of about 50 men who marched.
"I'm just one more ordinary Cuban," Portal said. "And if we don't have the right to express ourselves, I'm going to stand as a man and a gentleman and say what I want."
The leadership of the Ladies in White now falls to Berta Soler, who co-founded the group, which the Cuban government depicts as a tool of Washington and the anti-Castro exiles who back the women. Even though most of Cuba's internationally recognized political prisoners are now free, Soler said the Ladies aren't going away.
"The Ladies are going to continue this struggle," Soler said. "My husband is out of jail now but there are other women who have joined us whose husbands are still behind bars, and we can't just give up on them."
As usual, ordinary Cubans appeared indifferent to Sunday's march. A few passing cars honked, but no one spontaneously joined in. Despite the support for her abroad and a statement from the White House honoring her, surveys have found that few Cubans seemed to know of Pollan when she was alive. Her death wasn't mentioned in Cuba's state-run media.