Havana, Cuba - July 15, 2009
On Sunday, July 12, Las Damas de Blanco (The Ladies in White), celebrated Mass at La Iglesia de Santa Rita as they have done every Sunday since the Spring of 2003.
The Ladies in White began demonstrating when the Cuban government arrested, tried and sentenced 75 human rights defenders, independent journalists, and librarians.
Last Sunday, as usual, the elegantly white-clothed ladies, met at the mass held in the Santa Rita church, and afterwards walked together down Fifth Avenue in Havana.
But on that day, in what has traditionally been a silent protest of the unjust incarceration of their loved ones and the lack of fundamental freedoms in Cuba turned vocal.
"Libertad! Libertad! Libertad!" shouted the ladies in unison as they stood abreast of one another with raised flowers and impassioned voices.
A number of Cuban onlookers were stunned by the display.
David Angel, a 36-year old Cuban who was playing with his 2-year-old son, Edgar Luis, in the park next to Santa Rita said, "I have never seen anything like this in Cuba before."
Within the past few years, the international community has taken notice of the courage of The Ladies in White.
In October 2005, Las Damas de Blanco were awarded the prestigious Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament. The following year, Human Rights First honored them for their "brave defense of human rights."
According to a 2006 statement made by Miriam Leiva, founding member of Las Damas de Blanco,
"Cuba will never again be the same. The people deserve the right to express themselves without fear, to know what's happening, to contribute their opinions, to participate in the decisions, to really be the masters of their fate, to help our homeland to recover economically and join the international commonwealth.
One of the first steps has to be the release of the 75 prisoners of conscience, those people sentenced unjustly in March 2003 to terms of up to 28 years; the 60 who are in prison and the 12 who have been released on parole for reasons of health and remain in the country; as well as the release of the other peaceful prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, including those who have been awaiting charges and trials since July 2005."
José Francisco Johnson Donnelly, a 44-year-old American completing a book in Havana about social justice said, "Cuba is full of contradictions...and something has got to change very soon."
Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Regla, unofficial reports that a Catholic church burned down in the early morning hours of July 14, and that the Spanish pastor was found dead inside, filled the streets of Havana.