Havana – The Ladies in White dissident group, in their first march since the death last week of leader Laura Pollan at the age of 63, warned the Cuban government that they will continue their struggle on behalf of human rights.
"May the Cuban government be well aware that we are strong and will persist with this peaceful struggle to free political prisoners and defend human rights," spokeswoman Berta Soler said as she left Santa Rita Church where every Sunday the Ladies in White attend Mass before their weekly march.
But this Sunday Laura Pollan did not lead the march, having died two days earlier after being hospitalized for a week with a severe respiratory ailment.
A total of 62 Ladies went to Santa Rita Church on a day of mourning for the group, where during the Mass the Rev. Jose Felix Perez, secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Cuba, offered words in remembrance of Pollan and of condolence for her family.
As they have always done, the Ladies in White set out after Mass on their peaceful march down Havana's Fifth Avenue, but on this occasion, in honor of their deceased leader, they marched together with dissident men including Laura Pollan's husband, former political prisoner Hector Maseda.
Carrying a photo of his late wife, Maseda walked at the head of the procession.
The march, which in all was composed of about 100 men and women, went off without incident and ended back in front of the church where the dissidents shouted "Laura Pollan lives!"
Following Pollan's death, Soler is shaping up as the new leader of the Ladies in White, though she insisted Monday that the leader is still Laura because "spiritually" she remains with group.
Similarly, Maseda told reporters that the couple's home in Havana will continue to be the group's meeting place.
At the same time, Maseda and Soler said that four members of the group were unable to take flowers to Santa Rita in honor of Pollan because State Security agents intercepted them on their way to the church and smashed the vases they were carrying.
After the march, Soler expressed gratitude for the words of support and condolence for Pollan's death from international leaders that included U.S. President Barack Obama, France's Nicolas Sarkozy and the leader of Spain's Popular Party, Mariano Rajoy.
As co-founder of the Ladies in White, female relatives of a group of 75 government opponents jailed in the communist regime's 2003 Black Spring crackdown, Pollan was one of the most prominent and respected figures in the peaceful struggle to secure their release.
A high-school literature teacher who had formerly eschewed political protest, she became a rights activist after husband Hector Maseda was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly conspiring with the United States to undermine the revolution.
For their efforts, the Ladies in White were awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2005.
Finally, after political prisoner Orlando Zapata's death following a lengthy hunger strike sparked international condemnation, an unprecedented Spanish-backed deal was struck in 2010 between the Cuban government and the island's Catholic hierarchy for the release of the remaining Group of 75 members still behind bars.
But even after the last remaining Group of 75 member was freed, the Ladies in White have continued their peaceful protests to demand respect for human rights and the release of other inmates they say are being held because of their political beliefs.