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Gloria, Shakira, Andy - Ladies in White

On a tip from a press officer, I was paired with El Heraldo’s international page editor Fanny Riva Palacio to interview poet María Elena Cruz Varela, a…

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On a tip from a press officer, I was paired with El Heraldo’s international page editor Fanny Riva Palacio to interview poet María Elena Cruz Varela, a recently freed Cuban political prisoner. That was in 1994, when I was in Mexico City to report on that nation’s presidential election that year.

That was Mexico’s first presidential election after an extremely controversial one in 1988. Both U.S. parties — Republican and Democrat — had sent observers to serve as part of an international delegation.

After tailgating a pro-democracy leader who had opposed the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, I was impressed how the arriving observer was greeted like a rock star. He shook hands with people waiting to vote. “¿Cómo ‘taz? ¿Cómo ‘taz?” he greeted, sounding more South Texan than South American to me.

Voters told me they welcomed the attention, that it assured a fair process.

At the Hotel María Isabel, Riva Palacio and I set up our recorders in a sitting area between the lobby and the hotel administrative offices, then the press officer introduced us to María Elena Cruz Varela.

Maria Elena having been released from Cuba that week and, sponsored by the Jimmy Carter Center, was sent to Mexico to observe the elections. She had been a leader of an artists’ opposition group called Criterio Alternativo. In 1991, it had published a manifesto calling for reforms, national debates and free elections. She was given a two-year prison sentence and then kept under house arrest.

We gathered these facts from the attractive, soft-spoken woman in a white shift dress, Reeboks and bright, rainbow colored socks. She spoke lyrical, metaphorical, words.

Cruz Varela told us about having been tortured. Her words seemed at first like a poet’s hyperbole. “What do you mean you are not here?”

“My heart is in Cuba,” she said. “I died in Havana.”

When two armed men in uniform marched through the lobby, a look of horror came over her face. I felt I was in a movie flashback until I realized those were just armored car personnel with rifles coming to get the receipts from the administrative office.

After the interview, Fanny and I, in a walk around the block, worked up the courage to ask each other what we had witnessed. We agreed we saw the woman seated, with the look of horror in her face, and her spirit leaping out of her body.

Nearly a decade later, in the spring of 2003, the Cuban government arrested and tried 75 human rights defenders, journalists and librarians. They were given sentences up to 28 years in prison. Ladies in White formed two weeks after the arrests. Each Sunday after Mass at St. Rita’s in Havana, they form a ritual procession to a nearby park. They dress in white, like the Argentine mothers of the “disappeared” during the Dirty War there (1976–1983). The Ladies in White each wear a button with the photo of the jailed relative and a number to signify the sentence.

On March 26, singer Gloria Estefan led a march in Miami of tens of thousands to support the Ladies in White in Havana. From Bogota, singer Shakira sent a message of support, saying clamoring could “rise all the way to the heart of the tyrants.” In Los Angeles, actor Andy García led a march calling attention to the Cuban prisoners.  In New York City, young Cuban Americans held a silent march in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The mobilization signifies the next generation is going to respond. They use as their slogan, “This is not a Cuban issue; it’s a human issue.”

It is the recognition that everyone has the right to remain integrated--body and soul. Violating it for political reasons is to take away the most intimate, the most personal of rights.

 

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