A schism within the Ladies in White

Some 30 members have quit the Cuban dissident movement, causing a crisis in the organization

The Ladies in White, pictured in Havana.
The Ladies in White, pictured in Havana.EFE

Over the last few weeks, a series of small disputes has led to the resignation of almost 30 members of the Cuban dissident movement Ladies in White. This break-up is the greatest schism the organization has faced since it was founded by Laura Pollán during the “Black Spring” of 2003.

Wives, daughters and sisters of dozens of Cuban political prisoners come together in the group under the leadership of Berta Soler. The members from the Santiago de Cuba chapter who have quit have been critical of Soler for controlling the group’s decisions. She, however, downplays the conflict, even though it has affected other dissident groups. Soler is accusing the Cuban government of trying to break up the opposition.

The controversy erupted in late July when differences between Soler, the group’s national leader and Belkis Cantillo, the representative of the movement in Santiago de Cuba, became public knowledge. “Soler wanted to impose a lot of things on us. She wanted to walk all over me and that’s how she got me to resign,” Cantillo says in a telephone interview.

Cantillo was a founding member of the group. She joined when her husband, José Daniel Ferrer, her brother-in-law, Luis Enrique Ferrer, and around 70 other dissidents were sent to prison. The Ferrer brothers are the leaders of the Cuban Patriotic Union (Unpacu), an opposition group with 6,000 members in Cuba and Miami.

Soler wanted to walk all over me and that's how she got me to resign” Santiago de Cuba representative Belkis Cantillo

Cantillo that said one of the reasons she quit was that Soler had ruined the collaboration between the two organizations. “We are not going to bring democracy to the country by ourselves. We all have to get together to achieve that. But Berta Soler never accepted a union between Unpacu and the Ladies in White, even though her husband [Ángel Moya], is a member of that group.”

According to Cantillo, Soler has also allowed women who have been accused of collaborating with state security officials to join the movement, and has blocked membership in Santiago de Cuba from growing as fast as the Havana chapter.

One of the group’s main activities are “literary teas,” during which political debates are held. They also march every Sunday to nearby churches to ask for the liberation of the prisoners. “A year ago, 85 women marched on a single day but she has blocked the movement’s growth,” Cantillo says “Last year 30 women quit because of this problem and this year almost 30 have also dropped out.”

Soler, on the other hand, wants to move on from this conflict. On August 24, she made a public statement denouncing the accusations against her and saying that she had listened to the criticisms. “That was a statement in the name of the Ladies in White. We don’t want to touch on this topic again. We have to give it time because that is the only way to know what’s real and what’s not. I have nothing to justify or to clear up beyond making this statement. Time will tell what is real and what is not. We are fighting so that we may all exercise our freedom,” she told EL PAÍS from Havana.

Cantillo and Soler both suspect that the Castro regime may be behind the rift. “No resignation will affect us,” Soler says. “The Cuban government wants to try to divide, to discredit, to demoralize all the organizations and even more so when they feel like a pebble in its shoe. But this will give us strength to keep raising our consciousness, to organize, to unite more and more to bring a peaceful fight to the Castro dictatorship.”

“We are always going to have a good relationship,” she said of her organization’s ties to Unpacu. “Whatever internal conflicts we may have had will not affect it.”

What began as an internal dispute between Cantillo and Soler, however, has reached the social media platforms and blogs where people throughout the country discuss political issues. The 24 women who resigned along with Cantillo posted six long videos on YouTube where they explain the reasons for their departure. Pro-Castro Websites are circulating a letter attributed to Unpacu spokesman, Guillermo Fariñas, where he criticizes Soler’s work due to her “low intellectual level” and limited leadership skills.

Unpacu coordinator Félix Navarro denied these rumors saying: “Fariñas did not write that letter. The Ladies in White are an independent organization. We work very closely with them but we have never given them orders. In the kind of society that we want to create we must respect others’ criteria, no matter who they are. Besides the fact that I support Berta Soler and the Ladies in White, they are independent and they must decide what to do.”

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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