Havana in Black and White
Dissident Berta Soler takes a big risk by telling the truth about racism and repression in Cuba.
After an 11-hour police interrogation in 2011, Berta Soler, one of the founding members of the Cuban dissident group known as the Ladies in White, was given an ultimatum.
During an interview at the Journal's offices last week, Ms. Soler told me that the ministry of interior official who escorted her home said "Laura [Pollán, another founding member of the group] and I had to leave the country—because without us there would be no Ladies in White." Ms. Soler said she responded by telling the official that "the ones who have to leave are the Castros."
Cubans have been put against a wall and shot for less, but Ms. Soler's courage could not have been news to the regime. For seven years, beginning in 2003, the Ladies, dressed in white from head to toe, had attended Sunday Mass together at St. Rita's Church in Havana and then silently filed through the streets to demand that their political-prisoner relatives be freed.
The group was regularly set upon by Castro agents and clawed, punched and kicked. But they never retreated, even when the regime upped the ante by dragging them onto buses, driving them far from home and dropping them off to find their own way back.
By 2010, cellphone photos of the brutality embarrassed the dictatorship enough internationally that it began deporting the prisoners with their immediate families to Spain. It was classic Castro: For more than a half-century, strong dissident leaders who couldn't be broken have been killed or exiled.
Laura Pollán's husband, Héctor Maseda, and Ms. Soler's husband, Ángel Moya, were among a small number of prisoners of conscience who refused to leave. Eventually Castro paroled them, but the Ladies did not disband. Instead they began to work for the release of all political prisoners and for human rights.
The group was growing in numbers and expanding across the island on that day in 2011 when Ms. Soler was told to get out of Cuba. Seventeen days later, on Oct. 14, 2011, Pollán died mysteriously in a Havana hospital, surrounded by state security agents.
Ms. Soler's friend had reportedly been in good health only weeks earlier when, as she describes it, Castro enforcers attacked Pollán, bit and scratched her arm, and ran a handkerchief over the open wounds. Whether that was a way to introduce something into her bloodstream we may never know. But a week later Pollán came down with chills and vomiting and on Oct. 7 when she was admitted to the hospital, she suffered from shortness of breath.
Ms. Soler claims that Pollán might have been given oxygen but instead was "intubated and doped" and "seven days later we lost Laura." As I reported at the time, there was no autopsy and Pollán's body was quickly cremated.
Raúl Castro may have thought that the Ladies would soon fade away. He thought wrong. Ms. Soler says that the death of her friend and the equally suspicious death of dissident leader Oswaldo Payá in July 2012—supposedly in a car accident in which witnesses did not report a crash—has energized the movement.
Now Ms. Soler is taking advantage of the dictatorship's new travel policy—that for the first time in a half-century allows Cubans to take trips abroad—to ask the international community for "moral and spiritual support" for the Cuban people in their struggle against the dictatorship.
She wants the world to know of Castro's racism. Blacks, she says, are grossly underrepresented in the universities and overrepresented in prisons. "The beggars in Cuba are black, not white. The marginalized are blacks, not whites." She adds: "They tell me 'Negra, what are you doing? You have a lot to thank the revolution for!'"
Repression is on the rise, and in the absence of international condemnation the regime feels free to administer publicly the beatings the Ladies in White endure in order to show who's boss. The regime used to send women only to attack the Ladies but now they send men as well. They punch the Ladies with the clear intent to hurt them. They sometimes break bones.
Ms. Soler says that these attackers "never have been neighbors" spontaneously defending the glorious revolution. They are professionals working for the Interior Ministry or civilians who obey the regime in order to keep their jobs or their place in university classrooms. Ms. Soler says that for the past two years many of "the same faces" have consistently shown up to attack the group. The woman who bit Laura Pollan is well known by the Ladies because she is a regular on the goon squad and works for the ministry.
It is chilling to think what might happen to the politically incorrect Ms. Soler when she returns to Cuba, which is what makes her trip to Rome this week so crucial. She has asked to see Pope Francis. If he agrees, the visit might protect her. Without it, and in the absence of other influential international voices coming to her defense, her fate is less certain.