An Interview with Berta Soler, Leader of the Ladies in White
If you want confirmation that socialism does not work, do yourself a favor and visit Alamar. This community, twenty minutes east of Havana, is an example of real urban chaos. A place without rhyme or reason, ugly, poorly constructed buildings rise four, five, even eighteen stories high along poorly paved, winding roads.
I spent more than an hour trying to find building number 657 where Berta Soler lives. She is the leader of the brave women known as the Ladies in White, a group founded in April 2003 in response to the imprisonment of seventy-five peaceful activists opposed to the Cuban regime.
For the last 28 years, Berta has lived in Alamar, a bedroom-community created in 1970 to alleviate Havana’s housing shortage. Her convoluted neighborhood, with its run-down interior alleyways, is known as Siberia.
Soler shares a modest two-bedroom apartment with her two sons and husband, Ángel Moya, one of the twelve Black Spring dissidents who opted to continue his opposition work from inside the country. In her ivory-colored living room there is a photo of Pope Francis greeting Berta during a public audience at the Vatican.
When I arrive, she and her husband are washing a large batch of clothes. “We have to take advantage of the break in the rain,” Berta explains, looking at the items and throwing them into the washer. Before sitting down in a red vinyl sofa for an interview with Diario de las Américas, she prepares coffee in her tiny kitchen.
“I was born in Jovellanos, Matanzas province. I came to Havana when I was nineteen. I am a microbiological technician and worked in the América Arias maternity hospital. Before becoming a Lady-in-White, I belonged to a dissident group called the Leonor Pérez Mothers’ Committee.
“It was the beginning of the 2003 wave of repression. In the foyer of Villa Marista — the barracks of the political police — there was Blanca Reyes, the wife of poet Raúl Rivero, Claudia Márquez, Gisela Delgado, Miriam Leyva and Laura Pollán, among others. By order of Fidel Castro we had been separated from our husbands, fathers and sons. We decided to demand their release by carrying out a march every Sunday outside St. Rita’s Church in Miramar.
“From that moment Laura excelled at being the leader. She was my sister, my comrade-in-arms. Those were years of marches, verbal attacks and beatings by paramilitary mobs. On October 14, 2011, when she died under circumstances that I find suspicious, I felt as though a part of me had been ripped out. In one week the regime planned Laura’s death. One day what really happened will come to light.
“In the beginning there were forty-eight Ladies in White. Most of us had never been dissidents. We were workers, technicians and housewives who were forced by Castro’s dictatorship to protest, demanding the release of our loved ones.
“In 2010 the repression against us intensified. Most of us are monitored by the regime’s special services. In front of what had been Laura’s residence in Central Havana, they still maintain an intelligence command post with cameras and listening devices. In an apartment across from mine they have installed a permanent operative.
“Every time we go out into the streets of any province to march — gladiolas in hand, demanding freedom for political prisoners still in detention and asking that human rights be respected — the state ’generously’ spends resources that it does not invest in the people on tracking and repressing us. There are always police patrol cars, two city buses (in spite of the shortages in the urban transport system), hundreds of agents with communication equipment and even an ambulance. I would like to know how much money is spent on repressing us.
“After Laura’s death it was decided that I should be the group’s spokeswoman. We don’t have many secrets except logistical details such as the hour, day and location of a march. Since November 2011 we have had a standing rule. Any woman may join the group.
“We keep growing. Currently we have 240 women working on seven fronts: Havana, Granma, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo, Villa Clara and Matanzas. Soon we will add Ciego de Ávila. But, like I always say, we prefer quality to quantity,” notes the leader of the Ladies in White.
Berta Soler was a key player in a negotiation in April 2010 between the government of General Raúl Castro and Cuban cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino.
“We have to thank the cardinal and the Catholic church for their role as mediator in the conflict which arose after the death of Orlando Zapata from a hunger strike. Those were difficult months. The repression was fierce. Jaime Ortega himself witnessed a savage attack and verbal assaults against the Ladies in White from the doorway of St. Rita’s Church.
“It was then that Ortega decided to write a letter to Raúl Castro to negotiate a release. The cardinal acted as go-between. The regime wanted us to expel the Ladies in Support.* We refused. We reminded General Castro that, when they were imprisoned after the assault on the Moncada Barracks, his mother sought support from people who were not relatives.”
They then gave in. It was historic. For the first time the military rulers allowed them to march along Fifth Avenue without being harassed by paramilitaries. Mediation by Ortega and Spanish chancellor Miguel Ángel Moratinos led to the release of all the prisoners arrested for their support of the seventy-five and most of the other political detainees.
“But these days the Catholic church and the cardinal remain silent, continues Berta.” Other dissidents and I have even been the subject of strong criticism in Espacio Laical, the clergy’s own publication. Right now, even as we speak, there is a Lady in White who has been held for over a year without trial.
“She is the only member of the group in prison. Her name is Sonia Garro. She and her husband, Ramón Alejandro Muñoz, were detained in March 2012 as though they were terrorists. The Ladies in White demanded their immediate release,” says Soler.
It started pouring down rain in Alamar. Berta went to the kitchen to prepare dinner. As she peeled sweet potatoes, she continued.
“One member of the group, Berta Guerrero — a resident of Holguín — went through an extensive interrogation in which she suffered physical torture in her hands and was held in a room whose temperature had been set very low. We learned that State Security asked her to collaborate with them in exchange for a new house. When she refused, they issued a blunt warning: ’We have been ordered to put an end to the Ladies in White by July 26.’
“None of this intimidates us. We will continue to grow stronger. Even if the regime frees those close to the fifty political prisoners who remain in jail, we will keep marching in support of democracy and human rights.
“And to clear up the legal gibberish looming over the twelve dissidents who decided to remain in their homeland, among them my husband. Technically they are not free men. The regime can overturn their cases and send them back to jail. None of them has been issued a passport so they can travel,” Berta points out.
The leader of the Ladies in White sees the value in dissidents’ recent overseas trips. “I believe they have been positive,” she say. “They have exposed the deplorable economic and social conditions and the lack of political freedom in our country. We have learned how civil society functions in democratic countries. When you return, you realize how much there is left to be done in every area, especially in community work.”
In response to the accusations by eighteen members of Ladies in White Laura Pollan Movement in the eastern provinces, Berta states, “On June 30 the Ladies in White issued a declaration. It was a painful decision. We can accept any opinion, whether it be from someone in exile or any other dissident in Cuba. And we respect that. But we believe the internal affairs of the group should be left to us to manage. In my opinion the evidence is not strong enough to accuse Lady-in-White Denia Fernández Rey of being an agent of Cuban special services. You cannot condemn a person on the basis of reasonable doubt.”
Berta Soler is a woman of character. Her group’s vociferous demands for freedom during their peaceful protest marches over the course of ten years cannot be ignored.
“We have made great personal sacrifices. These include family members dying from poor medical attention while we were marching. Children like my daughter who have not been accepted to universities due to our political positions. Years in jail from which our relatives never recovered. Sisters like Laura Pollan who are no longer with us. And other Ladies in White who had to go into exile. No, Iván, this struggle has cost too much. No one is going to divide us, especially not the divisions hardened by the Castro special services.
Text and photo by Iván García
*Translator’s note: The Ladies in Support was organized to support the cause of the Ladies in White. Its members generally do not have relatives in prison but they often join in the group’s peaceful marches.
Translation by Irish Sam and Cuban Nellie