Eight years after they were recognized for their human rights work in Cuba with the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) were finally able to accept their award before the European Parliament on April 23, 2013.  This eight year delay was caused by the Cuban regime’s refusal to allow members of the group to travel to Brussels in 2005 to accept the award.

In accepting the award, the women spoke about continued human rights abuse in Cuba and the need for the European Union to maintain what is called the Common Position, which says any improvement in European Union-Cuba relations must be tied to progress on human rights.  Other Cuban dissidents who have been permitted to travel outside the island have shared similar messages. 

The award was accepted by Laura Labrada, daughter of the group’s late co-founder Laura Pollán, current leader and co-founder of Berta Soler and Belkis Cantillo, all of whom travel from Cuba.  Also joining them were Blanca Reyes and Elena Larrinaga, the groups representatives in Spain.

The Damas de Blanco was founded in March 2003 after 75 peaceful dissidents were arbitrarily arrested and sentenced to long prison terms in a period known as the Black Spring.  The group, made up of the female relatives and friends of the imprisoned activists, began to peacefully march each Sunday in Havana, dressed in white.  Beginning in the summer of 2010 the remaining prisoners from the group of 75 were released through a deal brokered by the Cuban Catholic Church, however, the majority were immediately forced into exile with their families.  The remaining women were joined by other women supportive of their cause.

Today in Cuba, the Damas de Blanco continue to peacefully protest in support of the release of all political prisoners being held in Cuban prisons as well as demanding human rights for all Cubans.  After the death of Laura Pollán under mysterious circumstances in October 2011, Soler took over leadership of the group, she has continued to expand membership and the group now has a presence throughout the island. 

The Damas de Blanco are not the only Cubans to be honored with the Sakharov Prize; the late Oswaldo Payá was honored in 2002 and independent journalist Guillermo Fariñas was honored in 2010.  Payá died last July when a car in which he was riding was allegedly forced off the road under suspicious circumstances.  He was never able to accept his award.  Like the Damas de Blanco, Fariñas has been prevented from traveling to accept the prize due to the Cuban regimes travel restrictions. 

Despite the limited “reforms” recently enacted by the regime, such as the change in travel regulations, Cuba remains one of the most repressive countries in the world with the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an independent group operating in Cuba, reporting 6,602 political arrests in 2012, up from 4,123 arrests in 2011.  

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