Laura Pollan: A Cuban Repressed by the Regime, a Cuban Loved by her Compatriots

In memory and honor of Laura Pollan

Although a few days have passed since the death of Laura Pollan, I have not been able to update the blog during this time.  The following report not only serves as proof of the constant repression in Cuba, but also as a tribute to Laura, considering that this Lady in White dedicated the majority of her time to resisting the Cuban dictatorship and fighting for human rights.  In my opinion, like in the opinion of many other Cubans inside and outside of the island, the death of Pollan was the fault of the Castro regime.  Some have said that the strange infection which she suffered from during her last days, which led her to the intensive care unit of the Calixto Garcia Hospital, was the product of a lethal injection given to her at the hands of government mobs- a theory which I do not in any way doubt, for they are very capable of this and much worse, and this must be kept into consideration.  And, let’s say, that there was no lethal injection.  Regardless, the reality is that the constant mob repudiation attacks, the brutal beatings, the blackmailing, and the harassment against this brave woman did play a crucial part in the deterioration of her health, and ultimately, her death.

The news of her death has been a very difficult blow for all Cubans, for that hurt, but not weak, resistance.  Threatened, but not afraid.  The example and spirit of Pollan will continue guiding the resistance, and no dictatorship can ever stop that.

Laura Pollan: A Cuban Repressed by the Regime, a Cuban Loved by her Compatriots

In less than two years, three known figures among the Cuban resistance have been killed by the Castro dictatorship- Orlando Zapata Tamayo in February of 2010, Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia in May of 2011, and the most recent- Laura Pollan Toledo during this month of October 2011.  And as has occurred after each one of these deaths, the funerary acts have been marked by the regime’s repression against dissidents and all those family and friends who wished to pay their final tributes to the victim.

It was around 7 PM on Friday, October 14th, when the news arrived.  “Laura Pollan has passed away“, read various Tweets straight out of the island, after she had spent a little over a week in the intensive care unit of the Calixto Garcia Hospital in Havana.  From the very moment that her death was confirmed, Cubans in and out of the island mobilized to express their solidarity, their pain, and deep frustration.  In Miami, Cubans shocked by the news- among them Reina Luisa Tamayo- congregated outside the popular local Versailles Cuban Restaurant, while the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity kept its doors open all night, offering a place to pray for the soul of the dignified Lady in White.

In Cuba, the pain shared by dissidents and relatives of Pollan was not respected by the dictatorship, which was expected.  The political police and the National Police carried out an aggressive operation throughout the island, including in Holguin where dissidents Caridad Caballero Batista and Isabel Pena Torres were trying to get to the local bus station to travel to Havana to be present in the wake of Laura Pollan and express their solidarity with her relatives.  “It was around 2:40 AM when we were intercepted on the street by National Police and State Security agents who shoved us in police vehicles and took us to the the Pedernales Unit“, the detainment center notorious for its completely dark cells and the aggression which functionaries treat inmates with, “The arrest was very violent, they pushed onto the vehicle, and State Security even gave orders to drag us through the floor“.  The activists were kept in separate cells.  Caridad added that on Sunday, at around 4 in the afternoon, a lieutenant by the name of Armando Rivera snatched the few belongings of Isabel Pena Torres which included documents of her medical history.  Upon seeing this document, officer Rivera tore it to pieces and threw them on the floor.  After an interrogation session and an aggressive beat down, Isabel had to pick up the pieces herself.  Caridad and Isabel were later released from the dark and humid cells at around 8 PM on Saturday.

Caridad Caballero also informed of other violent arrests in other eastern parts of the country.  “In Velasco, Holguin, Yonart Rodriguez Avila and his mother Mariblanca Avila were both detained as they tried to head to Havana.  Instead they spent the night in prison cells“, while similarly “In Sagua, Anni Sarrion Romero and Milagros Leiva Ramirez, whom were traveling from Moa, were arrested at around 1:30 AM.  Both women were beat off the bus by State Security and Political Police agents”.  Caballero adds that despite the fact that she was detained for hours, her home remained surrounded by government agents the entire time.

During that same somber night when the news of Laura Pollan began to spread, police vehicles and G2 (Secret Police) agents immediately surrounded the home of former political prisoner of conscience Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia in the eastern town of Palmarito de Cauto.  Ferrer’s wife, Belkis Cantillo, also tried to get to the funeral of Laura Pollan together with Aime Garces and Tania Montoya.  The three women were arrested at around 11 PM.  They were taking to the Police Unit of Contramaestre and from there they were transferred to the the 3rd National Revolutionary Police Unit of Santiago de Cuba, where they remained until Monday.  Various activists from the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) also suffered violent arrests- Leudis Fajardo Rivera, Martín Ruíz González, Mario Antonio Brocal Borges, Bárbaro Tresol Verdecía, Omar Wilson Estévez, Omar Pérez Torres, Yilian Pérez Sarrión, and Gerardo Guerrero Sarrión.

In Manzanillo, dissidents from the Independent and Democratic Cuban Party (CID) denounced that various activists from this same group had been detained, among them Juan Eduardo Salgado Jurado, Enrique Piñeiro Azahares, Abdel Mecochini Avalos, Manuel Enrique Peláez, Ramón Enamorado and Roberto Jurado Salgado as they tried to get to Moncada Avenue where they would take part in the signing of the condolences book for Laura Pollan.  A few hours later, Ubaldo Manuel León suffered a mob repudiation attack in that same town.

In Banes, on Sunday October 16th there was a mass held in which various attendees prayed for Laura.  The mass was assisted by dissidents Marta Diaz Rondon and Vivian Tamayo Ramayo.  Upon concluding the services, both Rondon and Ramayo tried traveling to Holguin to join in solidarity with their fellow detained dissidents but they were arrested at around 11:30 AM and released at 1:50 PM.  Ariel Cruz Meneses, Rafael Meneses Pupo, and Dayami Romero Ortiz were also arrested, at around 7:00 AM and released at 12 in the afternoon.

Floral arrangements of Katia Sonia, shattered on the floor

 Former political prisoner of conscience Pedro Arguelles Moran reported that on the same night of Laura’s death, the regime’s police forces surrounded his home in Ciego de Avila, impeding him, and anyone else inside, from stepping outside to travel to the capital.  The situation was repeated throughout the country, in a wide range of cities and provinces, while in Havana, the Maseda-Pollan family (accompanied by dissidents and friends) bid their final farewells to Laura Pollan.  She was cremated a few hours later.  The pastor and independent blogger, Ricardo Medina was present during the wake with his wife Katia Sonia Martin, also a Lady in White.  Medina provided religious services for Pollan and published an excellent account which detailed the emotions of that somber moment on his blog.  He also reported that his wife, Katia, and other women were intercepted by State Security agents on Sunday October 16th as they were taking floral arrangements to the Santa Rita Church .  The government agents snatched their flowers and hurled them on the floor, destroying the arrangement altogether.  Katia also suffered an arrest.

Even among so much pain and repression, solidarity and international support emerges

Although this has been a very difficult stage for the Cuban resistance, it is also important to point out that the devastating news of Laura Pollan’s death has also given way to an important emergence of solidarity amongst Cubans inside and outside of the island.

Some of these displays of solidarity have been:

Activists from the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) demonstrated throughout the streets of Moa, Holguin, with signs which read ‘Laura has not died’ and ‘Laura, we will continue your struggle’.  In Santiago de Cuba, Father Jose Conrado decided to dedicate his Sunday mass in the Church of Santa Teresita to Laura Pollan, while archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez did the same in another church.  According to Jose Daniel Ferrer, various homes throughout the country declared themselves “in mourning”, hanging up signs honoring the fallen leader of the Ladies in White.

Although it has been very sad for all of us, The Ladies in White and Ladies in Support will continue fighting for freedom, just like Laura always did.  For us, she has not died.  Laura continues to be alive in spirit, and she will be among us and guiding us, giving us strength to continue fighting against those who assassinated her.  And we can say that, yes, she was killed, the government killed Laura through their countless beatings and even the disease she suffered from in her last days, which we cannot rule out the possibility that it was contracted at the hands of government mobs“, declares Caridad Caballero Batista from Holguin.  From Placetas, Antunez declared through his Twitter account, “Laura, your brothers from the resistance are honoring you with the Resistance and Dignity Award“, while in Havana, the blogger Yoani Sanchez sported a T-shirt with Laura Pollan’s image all day in public, while also blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo handed the family in mourning  a book of condolences.

On Sunday, a mass was dedicated in Havana to Laura Pollan in the Church of Santa Rita.  It was accompanied by the weekly march of the Ladies in White, for the first time without their leader.  It was attended by her husband, Hector Maseda, as well as Berta Soler and her husband Angel Moya, including many other Ladies and White and dissidents.  Berta Soler declared that the movement of the Ladies in White had suffered a very strong blow but that it is emerging with much more strength, and that they would continue to be active and united in the name of Laura Pollan.

In the United States, various political figures joined Cuban dissidents in solidarity, from president Barrack Obama to Cuban-American legislators such as Ileana Ros Lehtinen and Marco Rubio, as well as Florida State Senator Bill Nelson.  Other international leaders, from countries such as Spain and France, also offered condolences.

Cuban exiles in Tampa announced that there will be a march in honor of Pollan on Sunday, October 23rd, while Cubans in Madrid- in their majority former political prisoners from the Black Spring- also dedicated a mass to Laura.

At the entrance of Versailles Restaurant, reads 'Laura Pollan, thank you for courageousness. To die for the homeland is to live eternally, your memory will be eternal"

During the Sunday Mass of October 16th, Miami’s Sanctuary for the Virgin of Charity (La Ermita de la Caridad) dedicated their services to Pollan, praying for her dignified soul.  Attending were many former political prisoners and Ladies in White now in exile, who filled the sanctuary with white.  The owner of Miami’s popular Versailles Cuban Restaurant- Felipe Vals- hung various signs throughout the locale which read ‘Zapata Lives and Laura Pollan Lives”, along with a note of admiration on behalf of Vals to Pollan which was placed at the entrance of the constantly busy restaurant.  And as soon as the news came out, Miami Dade College announced that it would offer a scholarship which would carry the name of Laura Pollan.

Also in Miami, a number of exiled Cuban women have called on the community to carry out a vigil in memory of Laura Pollan, as well as to denounce the atrocities committed by the regime which lead to her death.  The activity will take place on Friday, October 21st and will include the presence of a diverse range of exiled pro-freedom organizations such as MAR por Cuba,  the Coalition of Cuban American Women, the Cuban Democratic Directorate, Exile United, Young Cubans in Action, and the Rosa Parks Movement for Civil Rights (in exile).  Meanwhile, Cuban musicians Gloria and Emilio Estefan have announced that they are planning a massive event in honor of Pollan and in solidarity with the Ladies in White and Cuban resistance in general.  After the assassination of Orlando Zapata Tamayo on February of 2010 and after the brutal beat down of the Ladies in White on March of 2010, the Estefans carried out a march in Miami which was attended by more than 100,000 people marching down 8th street, dressed in white, and flowers at hand.

Another Cuban figure has joined the list of heroes and patriots which have lost their lives for dedicating their efforts for achieving Cuba’s freedom, and although deeply pained, we can now say, with certainty (among many others) that Pedro Luis Boitel Lives! Orlando Zapata Tamayo Lives! Juan Wilfredo Soto Lives! and yes, Laura Pollan Lives!

Also at Versailles Restaurant. Reads "Zapata Lives and Laura Pollan Lives"
Laura Pollan: A Cuban Repressed by the Regime, a Cuban Loved by her Compatriots

10/05/11- Vigil for Sara Marta Fonseca, all Cuban Political Prisoners (Photos + Video)

(Wednesday, October 5th 2011)– Amid candles, signs, and prayers, a vigil was held in Miami’s famous Versailles Restaurant for the immediate and unconditional release of Sara Marta Fonseca, her husband Julio Leon Perez, and all Cuban political prisoners.  Every Wednesday, a vigil is held in Versailles by the group of former prisoners who help Cuba’s internal resistance directly, known as “Plantados” in demand for the freedom of Cuba’s constant victims of repression and imprisonment.  This time, the event also counted on the participation of other groups, as well as former prisoner from the group of the 75 and recently exiled Ladies in White.

The event officially began with a prayer as all the candles began to light up.  Then some of those who were present shared a few words- among them former political prisoners Angel de Fana, Huber Matos, and Fidel Suarez Cruz.  Many participants carried signs with photos not only of Sara Marta but also of other women who have suffered countless acts of repression and violence in recent days, women like Yris Tamara Aguilera, Marta Diaz Rondon, Caridad Caballero Batista, Laura Pollan, Belkis Cantillo, Aimee Garces and many others.

More than anything, the vigil proved (as it has been proven on many occasions) that Cubans can come together, despite various groups and ideologies, to demand freedom for all their sisters and brothers on the island.

The following is a video of the Vigil.  One can clearly see the solidarity displayed that night:

10/05/11- Vigil for Sara Marta Fonseca, all Cuban Political Prisoners (Photos + Video)

Vigil for the Freedom of Sara Marta Fonseca, all Cuban Political Prisoners

This Wednesday October 5th, in Miami, there will be a vigil held in demand for the immediate and unconditional freedom of Sara Marta Fonseca Quevedo and her husband Julio Ignacio Leon Perez, as well as for all Cuban political prisoners.  The event will be held in Miami’s Versailles Restaurant beginning at 8 pm and is being promoted by the pro-freedom organization ‘Plantados Hasta la Libertad de Cuba’.  The event is open to all those who wish to attend whether they be Cuban or not, in order to demand freedom for all those Cubans who have been imprisoned for defending freedom and human rights not only for themselves but for all the Cuban people.  More information can be found on the Facebook page created for this event.

The situation of the dissident couple continues to be grim, considering that they have been behind bars since Saturday, September 24th and have remained in hunger strike since then.  ‘Julito’ Fonseca, the eldest son of Fonseca and Leon, informed a few days ago that he was able to see his mother who, according to him, had many marks of physical blows but had remained very firm in her convictions against the tyranny, choosing to maintain her hunger strike until she is freed.  Meanwhile, it has been reported that his father was interned in the Carlos Finlay Hospital of Havana, due to a drop in sugar levels and other health ailments, products of a severe beating and also a hunger strike.

Actions of solidarity such as this vigil prove the slogan of those who fight form inside the island: We are all Resistance.

Freedom for Sara Marta Fonseca, Julio Ignacio Leon, and all Cuban political prisoners!

Vigil for the Freedom of Sara Marta Fonseca, all Cuban Political Prisoners

Versailles: More than Just a Restaurant

Although when it comes to Cuba (and its dictatorship) anniversaries usually consist of dark events- acts of repression, arrests, executions, etc.- the island nation has also produced a plethora of things worth celebrating.  When the 52 year old dictatorship was implanted in the island, the (then) new authorities of the country started snatching away and robbing properties, households, and businesses which in their majority had been established from scratch by the hard work and sacrifice of Cubans.  Many of these Cubans were expelled  from the country while many others realized they had no future or that they were being persecuted for their political and ideological beliefs, turning to exile.  And without a doubt, this exile experience has been nothing short of difficult.  Families have been separated and sons and daughters have had to live knowing that their fathers, mothers, and  grandparents die in the island and that they are not able to be with them to bid them their final goodbyes.  With more luck, other entire families have been able to leave their country together, but e nevertheless suffering as they cannot see their beloved homeland again.  An absurd and totalitarian ideology has tried to erase countless years of culture, work, and values, but all those who physically left Cuba never abandoned her, carrying with them the pieces of the island right next to their hearts.  And wherever they have walked, despite how close or far it may reside from Cuba, they have planted those pieces and have cultivated them with much dignity and hope.  That is precisely the story which Versailles Restaurant represents, for it is a sentimental symbol for all Cubans who have had to leave their own land in hopes of finding freedom.  And it has just celebrated it’s 40th birthday.

Versailles is more than just a restaurant, although one cannot avoid mentioning their exquisite and traditional dishes- ropa vieja (shredded beef), fried yuca, Cuban sandwiches, just to name a few.  The restaurant, established by Felipe Vals in 1971, also serves as a sort of sanctuary for Cubans.  Here, one can find politicians seeking votes or international celebrities wanting to try some “exotic” foods, but the majority of the loyal patrons are those Cubans who, with the passing of the years, still deeply miss their land and find those missing pieces among the tables, coffee windows, and the bakery of the restaurant.  Often, when people describe the place, they say it’s a “place for grandparents”, where the “old folk” go to talk politics and about yesterday’s Cuba.  But in reality, when one walks into the mirrored salon lined up with green chairs and white tables, one can quickly spot out young faces, old faces, families, friends, coworkers, and students.

I’m not speaking just for myself when I say that many Cuban families prefer celebrating the graduations of their kids, or their birthdays, at Versailles.  For the young ones, this may sometimes be “uncool”, considering that their schoolmates and buddies instead meet up at Chilis, Fridays, or Starbucks.  But as years pass they look back and smile, glad they chose Versailles back then, that bright place which reminds them of grandma’s kitchen.  It really is a source of pride, of identity- of our version of Starbucks, our unique brand which we share with all are other non-Cuban friends.  Versailles is also a place visited by couples, especially during the weekend when its doors are open late past midnight.  The couples chat over cold and refreshing mojitos while crowds of concertgoers walk in at 2 am talking about how great the Willy Chirino show was, or the theater play, the Marlins game, the Heat game, or the U2 concert, even.  And when that Cuban-ness stirs inside Cubans, Versailles is the place to be.  The media cameras learned this lesson very well.  Whenever an oppressive crack down occurs on the island (which, anyone that knows anything about Cuba knows that this is often), when the dictators announce that they are suffering from a possibly terminal disease, or at times when they fumble their authority, the Versailles coffee windows get crammed with patriots who are seeking their lost piece of land more than they are seeking the aroma of coffee.  Or maybe they seek both things equally.  For many, the opinions heard at these windows are much more refreshing, and even ring truer, than those that can be read on newspapers or heard during intellectual discourses regarding Cuba.  It is a place flowing with stories.  Legendary singer Olga Guillot was a regular, waving at fans and sitting down chatting with them occasionally, telling jokes and taking pictures.  The creator of Mambo and author of countless Cuban classics, Cachao, was another regular, routinely having breakfast at the place.  People who quietly, or publicly, dedicate their lives to achieving Cuba’s freedom sit here on a regular basis.  Chances are the guy sitting across from you was a political prisoner back in the island, at least for ten years. Or maybe the woman.

For 40 years this is what Versailles has stood for.  That’s why this July 12th, crowds and crowds of Cubans (and non-Cubans) showed up to the restaurant, waiting in line to dine at 1971 prices while listening to live Cuban music- son, guaracha, guaguanco.  1971 prices? Yes, owner Felipe Vals decided to give the gift of rolling back prices for customers so that they would pay the same amount for the same items on the same menu back in ’71, the year Versailles first opened its door to the hungry public.  Those at the commemorative event were of all ages, and locals, which in Miami means ‘living here but coming from all over Latin America, or the world’.  One could see grandparents and grandkids in line, couples on dates, groups of friends straight out of work or summer school, professionals with suits and ties, tourists snapping photos, and overall, those who were once again searching for that piece of land that belongs to them.

This exile has lasted a long time.  With each passing year we Cubans see how more and more of “our own” start disappearing.  Large families go down in size, but new ones are born and the traditions get passed on from one to another.  We safeguard these traditions, and nowhere better are they preserved and paid tribute to than within the mirrored walls of Versailles.  For most Cubans in Miami, Versailles has perfectly conserved the memories of our families.  It’s as if, when we go there, our loved grandparents are still there, serving us our food and telling us stories about that Cuba which we perhaps have never set foot in, yet step into every time we open the doors of Versailles.  Versailles has not let Cuba die, it has not left the island’s music behind, or its customs, or its witty sayings.  It has helped define what it means to be Cuban, proving a few things- among them that Cuba will never belong solely to a few hateful old men in olive green and that it’s true meaning means love, family, respect, hope.  It has also stood as a testament of success and of willpower, proving that when we Cubans are free, we can be successful, breaking records, working hard for our possessions, and always having the desire to do more.

Cuba has been conserved thanks to the work of exiles which have never, and will never (thanks to the new generation), let her disappear.  And Versailles has played a key role in this.  Because of that, I thank its owners, and all those who keep it running.  Happy 40th birthday, Versailles, I hope you celebrate plenty more.  Soon, we will all celebrate in Cuba.

Roll-back ’71 prices

Does this really need a caption? All that food for 30 bucks? Thanks, Versailles!

Versailles: More than Just a Restaurant