While en route to accept Europe's top human rights prize, the leader of a leading Cuban dissidents group spoke strongly against the Castro brothers to an exile community that received her message with enthusiastic applause.
"We want a Cuba in which liberty exists," Berta Soler, co-founder of the Ladies in White, said. "Where there is democracy. And where there is respect for human rights. And also, we are fighting pacifically for a Cuba without the Castros."
The wife of a former political prisoner traveled to the United States after receiving the Sakharov Prize with other members of the Ladies in White Tuesday in Brussels. She met with Cuban-American political leaders in Washington and spent Saturday uniting with exiles in Miami, where nostalgia for Cuba still dominates many aspects of daily life.
Her visit comes shortly after that of two other prominent Cuban dissidents, blogger Yoani Sanchez and Rosa Maria Paya, the daughter of Oswaldo Paya, an opposition leader who was killed in a car accident last year. All three have recently been allowed to travel after years of being denied exit permits. In January, a new law scrapped the permit, which Cuba had routinely denied to those considered "counterrevolutionaries."
Soler accepted the prize in Brussels, eight years after it was awarded to the Ladies in White.
"I'm not here because of the migratory change, nor because of any good gesture by the Cuban government," Soler said, speaking in a strong, husky voice. "I'm here today because of international political pressure."
She called the economic and social reforms instituted by Raul Castro "cosmetic." The changes have expanded private enterprise and legalized a real estate market.
"They don't resolve the economic necessities of the people," said Soler, dressed in a white shirt and skirt, her eyes painted with a sparkling purple eye shadow.
Soler said Cuba is still a country where people go hungry and are castigated and detained for expressing dissent. Not all Cubans have been allowed to travel, including Soler's own husband, Angel Moya, who was locked up for years in connection with his political activities.
Soler spoke at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. About a dozen previous members of the group now living in the United States came dressed in white to greet her. Former political prisoners and passionate exiles peppered her with questions about conditions on the island.
The Ladies in White group was founded by wives and mothers of 75 government opponents arrested in a crackdown on dissidents in the spring of 2003. They marched together on Sundays, wore white to represent peace, love and purity, and carried gladiolus flowers, calling for their relatives' release. The Cuban government has detained the women from time to time and sent crowds of government proponents to shout at them. But their demonstrations proved successful. All of the political prisoners arrested in the crackdown have been released.
A small core of the original group has continued to march nearly every Sunday, joined by some who now have no relative that has been detained, but simply are in agreement with their message. The Ladies have struggled to find a new direction, but if Soler's speech was any indication, the group has turned its focus to a larger cause calling for democratic change and human rights on the island.
Soler said the members of her group have faced nearly every kind of insult, from being spit at and harassed to hit and detained. She also spoke about the discrimination faced by black Cubans. Blacks have long been underprivileged in Cuba, something the revolution attempted to rectify, though Soler said today they remain highly underrepresented in the government, at universities and in well-paid jobs.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I don't lie," said Soler, who is black. "There's nothing to thank the revolution for."
The issue of black equality in Cuba recently resurfaced after the publishing director of the influential, government-run Casa de las Americas cultural institute was demoted to a lesser role following his publication of an opinion piece in the New York Times that criticized "blatant racism" on the island.
Soler spoke forcefully about her views on the U.S. embargo against Cuba — she said the real blockade was the one inside Cuba.
"We are all Cubans and we all have the right to be in our country, no matter what political ideology we defend," she said. "Cuba does not belong to the Castros. It belongs to the Cubans."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.