February 1, 2008
Miami Herald- Luisa Yanez
Born the same year as Fidel Castro's revolution, Yolanda Huerga, a one-time librarian now living in Miami, seems an unlikely candidate to be co-founder of one of Cuba's most recognizable opposition groups.
For most of her life on the communist island, Huerga went along to get along. She dismissed her grandparents' closed-door rantings about Castro's repressive government as old folks' chatter.
That all began to change on March 19, 2003, when Cuba's government arrested Huerga's husband, Manuel Vázquez Portal, among 75 independent journalists, librarians and rights activists rounded up in a crackdown.
As she watched her husband hauled away from their Alamar home, the seeds of revolt subtly planted by her late grandparents began to flower.
'Until then, I had stayed out of political things,' said Huerga, 48, who cataloged books at Havana's public library until 2000.
The government that accused her husband and the others of being mercenaries for the United States had unwittingly recruited her into action.
Other Cuban women in similar situations -- the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the 74 men and one woman arrested in that sweep and sentenced to stiff sentences for dissent -- would make history with her as founders of Las Damas de Blanco, or the Ladies in White.
As Las Damas prepares to mark its fifth anniversary in March, Huerga, her husband and 13-year-old son, Gabriel, are out of Cuba, but the group's work still consumes her. As Las Damas' official representative in the Americas, Huerga makes appearances from Canada to Argentina, accepts international humanitarian awards and hails the group's successes.
'We have accomplished much, but Las Damas will continue to exist as long as there are political prisoners in Cuba's jails,' Huerga said.
Las Damas has won honors from Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First and the prestigious Sakharov Prize given by the European Parliament. More than any other human rights group struggling inside Cuba, Las Damas' show of civil disobedience has caught the world's attention, shining a steady spotlight on abuses and pressuring the Castro government without firing a single gunshot.
'In the face of persistent threats, insults and attempts to silence the Ladies in White by the Cuban government, these courageous activists remain steadfast in their struggle for justice and human rights,' said Andrew Hudson, who deals with Latin American issues for Human Rights First.
Every Sunday without fail since the group was formed in March 2003, the women have attended Mass at Santa Rita de Casia Catholic Church in the Miramar district of Havana. Then, wearing their trademark white clothes, they march in silence -- always carrying pink gladioluses -- down Havana's embassy row, La Quinta Avenida, demanding their loved ones' release.
Today, 59 of the original 75 rounded up in what became known as Cuba's 'Black Spring' are still serving sentences of up to 28 years.
The Cuban government keeps close tabs on the women -- and has from time to time unceremoniously dispatched back to their homelands foreign visitors who march with the group. The government's 'defense of the revolution' neighborhood groups continue to keep an eye on the women -- Huerga was visited three times by state police before leaving Cuba. And most Las Damas marches are met with a counter 'repudiation' march staged by pro-government forces.
'They yell insults at us, but our stance is not to be provoked,' Huerga said.
Many Cubans support Las Damas' mission, though they're careful about showing it in a country with a government that does not tolerate much dissent.
'We'll be walking down the street and someone will pat us on the back,' Huerga said. ``Of course, as they do, they look side to side to make sure no one else sees them.'
On a recent Sunday, Las Damas handed out toys donated by two Miami-based exile groups -- the Cuban American National Foundation and Mothers Against Repression -- to the children of the jailed journalists and dissidents in celebration of Three Kings Day. Outside, Cuba's state police looked on.
The real victory for Huerga was that a handful of kids not related to the dissidents were allowed by their parents to participate.
'People inside Cuba do not attend events put on by the opposition. It just doesn't happen,' she said.
Sylvia Iriondo, founder of Mothers Against Repression, whose members appear in public dressed in black, said Las Damas members have touched a nerve inside the island and represent the 'sacrifice, compassion, devotion and integrity' that Cuban women have displayed since colonial times.
'They have reclaimed the streets of Cuba for the people,' she added.
For Huerga, the day of reckoning came in March 2003, when militia knocked on her door around 6 p.m. on the second day of the three-day roundup.
'That day, I opened the door and 12 men pushed past me and into our house,' she said.
For four hours they searched the home, confiscating her husband's 1940s American-made typewriter and all his work and taking him away.
A well-known writer and poet, Vázquez Portal, now 57, had grown disenchanted with the government and in 1989 had left his post with a state magazine. By 1995, he was filing stories usually critical of conditions in Cuba to the United State and Europe.
In 1999, the family was granted U.S. visas -- and Huerga left her library job. But Cuba denied them exit as Vázquez Portal continued his dissident dispatches -- until his arrest.
'I was desperate and had no idea what to do next, but wanted to do something,' she said.
SPARK OF INSPIRATION
The original Damas -- about 18 women -- found each other in the waiting room of the jailhouse where their loved ones were first detained.
'That is where the women started talking about uniting, about doing something,' Huerga said.
All novices to politics, the women held their first meeting at the Miramar church.
By the first week of April 2003, the 75 detainees were summarily tried, and Huerga's husband was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Las Damas launched its Sunday marches along the main street outside Santa Rita church. The women attracted the attention of the international media, which helped turn them into budding human rights heroines.
To gain momentum outside Havana, Huerga began secretly traveling to Cuba's other provinces to tell women in similar circumstances about Las Damas' human rights agenda.
By the first anniversary of the arrests, Las Damas members were staging their longest march, venturing away from Santa Rita and gaining international acclaim.
From inside prison, Vázquez Portal learned how his jailing transformed his wife into a lioness -- and how she and the other women picked up the torch from him and the others.
'It was very touching to see how something fierce was awakened in her, a courage and fire that was honest and pure and very impressive,' Vázquez Portal said.
Quite a feat, he said, for a women's movement to take hold in Cuba's machismo culture: ``I think Las Damas ended up having more impact than the very dissidents they were fighting for.'
In June 2004, the Cuban government claimed medical reasons for suddenly releasing Vázquez Portal. He suffers from a pulmonary condition, but says he never asked for special treatment. 'We think international groups put pressure on Cuba to win him his release,' Huerga said.
In 2005, the Cuban government granted the family the exit visas they had long been denied. 'By then, they probably wanted to get rid of us,' she said.
The couple continue their human rights crusade. Huerga's husband landed a job with Radio Martí and writes freelance opinion columns for El Nuevo Herald.
Huerga now works for two nonprofit groups that strive to bring about democratic change in Cuba -- Mothers Against Repression and Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia. Those two groups, along with former Cuban political prisoners known as the Plantados, are the women's lifeline to the outside world.
Las Damas remain a close-knit group of original members only, who accept support of other women who often march with them. They have no official leader. Some members are more outspoken than others, like Laura Pollán, Alejandrina Garcia, Julia Nuñez and Miriam Leiva, all still inside Cuba; in Europe, Blanca Reyes is Huerga's counterpart.
Although out of Las Damas' battleground in Cuba, Huerga says her heartfelt dedication to the group continues.
'Las Damas de Blanco is an organization founded because of our love for our husbands, our sons, our brothers,' Huerga said. ``How can a group like that not succeed?'
Miami Herald staff writer Frances Robles contributed to this report.