Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Cuban Dissidents Denounce Smear Campaign

Government-linked TV station airs allegations that leading protest group is badly run and financially opaque.
By Camilo Ganga
  • Women from the Damas de Blanco protest group on a march in Havana. (Photo: Gerardo Younel Ávila Perdomo)
    Women from the Damas de Blanco protest group on a march in Havana. (Photo: Gerardo Younel Ávila Perdomo)

Leaders of a Cuban dissident group called the Ladies in White say the government is attempting to undermine it by releasing videos portraying members as corrupt and embroiled in infighting.

The short films were released to coincide with the award of a major human rights prize to the Ladies in White earlier this year, and broadcast on a pro-government television channel, Cubainformación.

The Ladies in White or “Damas de Blanco” group was set up by women campaigning for the release of 75 relatives imprisoned in the “Black Spring” of 2003.

Their trademark protest action involves attending Sunday mass wearing white clothing and then holding a silent march.

In 2005, the European Parliament awarded the Ladies in White the Sakharov Prize for their human rights work, but travel restrictions prevented the group from accepting it until Cuba relaxed its emigration rules this year.

Berta Soler, the head of the Ladies in White since 2011, travelled to Brussels on April 23 to accept the prize. She is the wife of Ángel Moya Acosta, one of the dissidents imprisoned in 2003.

During Soler’s trip, Cubainformación TV carried two videos questioning her honesty and the financial probity of the movement as a whole.

Both called “Corruption in the Ladies in White”, the films feature edited interviews with current and past members of the group, as well as photos and clips taken from television programmes.

Soler’s voice is played at reduced speed to a background of reggaeton-style music, with the apparent aim of mocking her.

The films include four Ladies who were active members at the time of the interviews – Leonor Reino Borges, Mirtha Gregoria Gómez, Lilia Castaner Hernández and Raquel Castillo.

The films also include testimony from former members Katia Sonia Martín, Ana Luisa Rubio and Miriam Reyes Gómez, who were expelled from the movement in 2012.

In her interview, Reyes Gómez calls Soler a “monster” with a violent temper and complains she never received money she was owed by the movement. Another interviewee, Martín, criticised the group’s disciplinary procedures and claimed that members did not voice complaints for fear of being expelled.

Reino Borges and Castillo, meanwhile, cast doubt on the way donations from Cuban exiles and others were used.

Those who appeared in the videos have since acknowledged that they gave the interviews and that the words used are their own, but claimed the filming was done under false pretences.

Castaner, Castillo and Ana Luisa Rubio said that a foreign journalist visited them at the beginning of 2012, presenting himself an American with links to the United States Agency for International Development, USAID. He told the women that he was investigating whether the money that USAID provided for democracy promotion in Cuban was being lost to corruption.

At the time of her interview, Castaner was on hunger strike in protest at the disappearance of her son. She said later she had been weak, depressed and unable to think clearly during the filmed interview, which the visitor persuaded her to give alone.

Castillo and Rubio said they never even saw a camera and did not know that they were being recorded.

Castillo said the man who interviewed her showed her a video of an argument at Ladies in White headquarters about a gay man who was refused permission to parade with the group.

She says a comment she made – “yes, they fought” – was taken out of context to make it appear that there were constant arguments over money and resources.

Ladies in White held a public event in late April to denounce the films as part of a campaign of psychological warfare waged by the Cuban government.

Senior member Laura Labrada told reporters that money and resources were distributed fairly.

“We are all defenders of human rights, we all take knocks, and we are all [Ladies in White founder] Laura Pollán,” she said.

Another activist, journalist Magaly Norvis Otero, told the audience, “There are many people present here who have been in a bad way and who have been helped by us. We are all witness to how we all try to protect each other.”

She also addressed a claim which Reyes Gómez made in the film that Soler instructed participants in the Sunday processions that “if someone falls, everyone else should leave them and carry on walking”. According to Norvis Otero, “It meant the fight must go on… it didn’t mean they were going to leave anyone lying on the ground.”

On returning from abroad, Soler decided not to take any action against Reino, Gómez and Castaner.

Castillo, however, was expelled, and now says she was not given a chance to put her side of the story but was left “at the mercy of government repression and impunity”.

Asked to comment on the expulsion, Soler told IWPR, “Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth closed and your tongue inside it than to talk too much.”

Soler insisted there were no secrets about the group’s funding from international awards and diaspora donations.

“We are now autonomous. We have our own resources,” she said. “We have the Sakharov Prize in a bank account in Spain with 16,000 euro. We also have the Václav Havel Prize [52,000 euro prize shared with two other winners]… and monetary assistance from brothers and sisters in exile and persons of good will in Miami, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. In all, they [the exiles] have donated 24,000 US dollars, which is in an account in the United States.”

She said the money was used to pay for travel, to support the families of detained members, and to provide clothing.

“Nevertheless, we know it isn’t enough,” she added.

Soler said the videos did not worry her as they were just “another example of how the Cuban government is alarmed at our peaceful behaviour in the streets, and at our very existence. The government knows we’re going to continue.”

In contrast to Soler’s robust attitude, other Ladies in White fear that the emergence of the films indicates the group has been infiltrated by the Cuban security services. In late June, 19 members resigned from the movement on the grounds that leaders had not fully investigated claims that a regime collaborator was active within the organisation.

Camilo Ganga is the pseudonym of a journalist living in Havana, Cuba.

This article first appeared on IWPR's website.