By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY May 6, 2005; Page A15
For more than two years now, Fidel Castro has faced a frightening scene in Havana every Sunday. Some 30 women dressed all in white meet at St. Rita's church; when Mass is over they form a silent procession and walk ten blocks to a nearby park. This is the kind of stuff that keeps dictators up at night.
They are the Ladies in White, wives of prisoners of conscience doing time in Castro's gulags. The ladies are appealing for the release of all political prisoners, in the name of justice and humanity. Their pleas go unheeded. But that doesn't mean that their act of defiance hasn't been effective. Indeed, sources say that similar groups of women decked out in white have begun forming processions in other cities around the country.
The fearless Ladies in White are a threat to a regime that relies on fear to maintain control. They also represent a noticeable phenomenon in the Cuban dissident movement that is bound to unnerve the dictatorship: small group activism.
Just two years after the infamous crackdown that landed 75 peaceful dissidents in jail, the nation's democracy movement is rebounding vibrantly and creatively. On May 20, 365 independent civil society groups representing the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Cuba will hold a general meeting in Havana. "Notwithstanding the risks faced under the repressive system that rules Cuba," the organizers say, "the Assembly believes it is necessary to carry out this event."
If the one-day meeting goes as planned it will certainly make waves. But what is undoubtedly more disconcerting to the regime is the day-to-day activity of so many groups now sprouting all over the island.
So threatening is the tiny band of pacific ladies in white that on Palm Sunday, the government sent a mob of some 150 females to intimidate them. That scene, featuring the dignified dissidents walking unafraid through a gauntlet of state-sponsored hysteria, may have turned out to be a public-relations disaster. Whatever the reason, on Easter Sunday, when the ladies once again processed from Mass, this time each carrying a single gladiola, Fidel's goon-ettes slept in.
Oswaldo Payá, the leader of the Varela Project, which collected over 10,000 signatures on a petition calling for democracy, saw a great swath of his movement summarily tried and imprisoned in the 2003 crackdown. Yet he has continued his work. His latest effort, the "National Dialogue," seeks to organize small groups of Cubans to discuss reform. Central to the proposition is overcoming what he calls "the culture of fear."
In March, Mr. Payá told the Associated Press that "When Cubans are capable of saying that, beyond our fear, we want change, that hits the nucleus of power. If the people don't have fear, the regime no longer exists." And when John Paul II passed away in April, Mr. Payá praised his influence in Cuba. "He told us not to have fear, that the future was in our hands. That has been our inspiration in the struggle for true liberation."
The struggle against fear has a long way to go. Fidel has cleverly planted spies within the resistance movement, thereby heightening distrust and division among his opposition.
But he has not been able to snuff out courage, despite brutal tactics such as those described in a March 30 report by Marcus Gee of Canada's Globe and Mail: "Amnesty [International] says prison guards beat one handcuffed dissident by stomping on his throat till he lost consciousness."
A prominent symbol of dissident stamina is Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet. The 43-year-old renowned pacifist, whose motto is "life and freedom," is a devout Christian and follower of Martin Luther King, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.
He first got in trouble with the regime in 1998 when he was working at a Havana hospital and he presented to authorities the results of a clandestine study he had done on the government's use of the chemical substance Rivanol to abort advanced pregnancies. The practice is widespread in Cuba, including its common use among girls as young as 12, who during their government-mandated school time in the countryside without their parents, often become pregnant.
Dr. Biscet has written that the study proved "the murder of infants born alive, denied of medical assistance." According to his report "the umbilical cord was cut and they were allowed to bleed to death or they were wrapped alive in paper and asphyxiated." His opposition to these practices made him a counterrevolutionary and qualified him for the corresponding government program: He was fired, lost his home and was set upon by mobs that beat him and harassed his family.
In December 2002, Dr. Biscet's plan to create small groups meeting in private homes to promote human rights landed him in jail again and he received a 25-year sentence. The Web site www.free-biscet.org1 says that since his incarceration "he has staged protests against Cuba's violation of human rights at the prison with acts of civil disobedience, such as fasting and holding prayer services.
"Consequently, he was punished by being locked up in solitary confinement for 42 days in an unlit cell." Cuba's notorious "punishment" cells have no windows, a hole in the floor for a toilet and measure only about three-feet wide. Yet despite such grim circumstances, Dr. Biscet sends messages like this one: "My conscience and my spirit are well."
Of course, Dr. Biscet's real crime is that he is an Afro-Cuban who is neither grateful nor obedient to the regime and who answers to a higher power. Perhaps his worst transgression is his courage, which makes him a dangerous inspiration to the many Cubans that are now organizing in small groups.