Washington — A group of courageous Cuban women who are struggling for the release of political prisoners were honored for their work at the U.S. State Department on April 21.
Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) received the Human Rights Defenders Award for bringing international attention to more than 70 independent journalists, labor leaders and human rights activists who were arrested by the Cuban government in the spring of 2003, convicted of “political crimes” and imprisoned.
“Damas de Blanco distinguishes itself not only by the depth of its commitment to the release of political prisoners, but by the full measure of its bravery in defense of human rights in Cuba,” said William J. Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs, who presented the award.
The Human Rights Defenders Award showcases individuals and nongovernmental organizations that show exceptional valor and leadership in advocating for human rights and democracy in the face of governmental repression.
Julia Nuñez accepted the award on behalf of Damas de Blanco. She is married to Adolfo Fernandez Sainz, an independent journalist who was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment during the “Black Spring” of 2003. She was a homemaker prior to her husband’s imprisonment, but joined the Damas de Blanco to demand the release of her husband and others.
The Damas de Blanco — most of them mothers, wives and other female relatives of the prisoners — joined together shortly after the 2003 arrests of their loved ones and called for their release by holding constant vigils at the Santa Rita Church in Havana. Dressed in white, they walked down Havana’s most traveled streets carrying gladiolas and photographs of their imprisoned relatives.
The women were subjected to constant government surveillance and regular visits by state security. The Cuban government organized mobs to demonstrate in front of the women’s homes. These pro-government demonstrations could go on for hours and included throwing stones or eggs and chanting pro-revolutionary slogans.
Through it all, the Damas de Blanco persevered. As of April 2011, all of the political prisoners arrested in 2003 have been released. Even so, there are still numerous political prisoners in Cuban jails.
“The Damas helped create the conditions that led to the release of the political prisoners arrested during the Black Spring crackdown of 2003,” Burns said. “With much of the battle for human rights in Cuba forced underground, the Damas de Blanco kept marching. And they keep on providing a poignant weekly reminder of the day-to-day repression that Cubans face.”
“We stand alongside the Damas de Blanco in calling for the release of all remaining political prisoners,” Burns said.