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No gladioli in Havana

The death of Laura Pollán has acted as a cement, bringing together a broad spectrum of the Cuban opposition

Sunday was rainy, autumnal. A woman prowled the flower stands, not finding exactly what she wanted. Among the roses and carnations she found only a few faded gladioli, the better ones having been snapped up by early risers. Since the afternoon of October 14, dozens of Cubans had been buying up so many gladioli that the flower sellers had run out. Laura Pollán, the woman who had taken a place in our collective imagination, dressed in white with a gladiolus in her hand, had just died, and her favorite flower was in great demand. For lack of it, some purchased lilies and jasmine, and carried them to the modest house at 963, Neptuno street. Inside, the atmosphere was a blend of pollen, weeping and candles. Many of the women who had accompanied her each Sunday in her pilgrimage were there, while outside the rain poured down on Havana.

Pain can dissipate rivalries, smooth over differences and bring people together in embrace. Laura's death has acted as a cement, bringing together in her house a broad spectrum of the Cuban opposition - independent journalists, alternative bloggers, civic activists. This schoolteacher, who died on Saturday at 63, accomplished once again in death what she had been so good at in life: bringing people together. With charisma and patience, she had woven ties between political leaders and the ordinary citizen. She began that work when, in 2003, a hammering on her door announced a change in her existence. After a thorough police search, her husband Héctor Maseda was taken away and sentenced to 20 years in prison for crimes against national security - that is, for publicly opining about a different sort of Cuba.

A total of 75 were jailed. Macho logic prescribed that their wives ought to sit at home and weep, while the husbands served long sentences in their provinces of origin. The regime trusted that this blow to the opposition would dissuade others from public dissent, and that their women would remain silent. With regard to the latter, they were wrong.

If any civic phenomenon has been reviled to excess in the official media, it has been the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White). They have faced every sort of intimidation, and public hate rallies, notably in front of Laura Pollán's door. Official journalists called them Ladies in Green, in reference to the dollar remittances they received from Cuban exiles, so they could bring food to their imprisoned husbands. The government begrudged every cent that might reach the hands of these needy women. Even when Laura was placed in intensive care, the official media went on reviling her in a program broadcast at prime time.

With severe pain in the joints, respiratory problems and general fatigue, Laura Pollán was admitted to one of those Havana hospitals where medical talent abounds, and lighting and disinfectants are in short supply. In view of the gravity of her case, her family was asked whether she should be taken to a well-equipped clinic intended for military personnel. However, before losing consciousness under sedation she had made it clear that "the people's hospital is good enough for me." And there she died, after they had taken five days to diagnose a case of dengue hemorrhagic fever, in a land where this particular epidemic has been raging for months, and where the sound of fumigation against the Aedes Aegypti mosquito is part of the background noise to our daily lives.

Though many newspapers worldwide ran the story of this famous woman's death, Granma and the rest of the Cuban official media have observed strict silence - proclaiming the government's pettiness, and also its fear. The leader of the Damas de Blanco has died, and no one can see a gladiolus without thinking of Laura Pollán.

Yoani Sánchez is a Cuban journalist, author of the award-winning blog Generación Y.

© Yoani Sánchez / bgagency-Milan

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