The “Ladies in White,” a group of mothers and wives of Cuban dissidents who’ve been jailed, received an award from the Obama administration on Thursday for their struggle for human rights in Cuba.

Senior State Department official William Burns says the U.S. stands with the group — referred to as the Ladies in White because they dress in all-white, to symbolize peace, for their marches — in calling for the release of all political prisoners held by the Communist government.

During the awards ceremony in Washington D.C., Burns said the group Ladies in White “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.”

Burns said the women are a poignant reminder of the "day-to-day repression that Cubans face."

The prize, called the Human Rights Defender Award, is given for "exceptional valor and leadership in advocating the protection of human rights and democracy in the face of government repression."

The Ladies in White, or “Damas de Blanco” in Spanish, were founded in 2003, when the Cuban government rounded up and jailed 75 dissidents. The women marched every week, demanding the release of their male relatives as well as all others who were jailed because of their opposition to the Communist regime.

“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. “

One of the founders of Ladies in White, Dolia Leal, who arrived in New Jersey from Cuba last year, said that she was moved by the recognition of the group by the Obama administration.

“It makes me so happy,” Leal said. “The Ladies in White have struggled so much for justice, for human rights, for an end to the imprisonment of people who express criticism of the oppression in Cuba."

"We marched and denounced the human rights abuses even as government security forces beat us, dragged us and threatened us.”

Cuba's government regularly denounces the Ladies in White. It considers them, and other dissidents, common criminals who take money from Washington to destabilize the island and bring down its social revolution.

Leal said that each of the many international human rights prizes the women have received provides an important boost to their morale.

“The Cuban government tries to break their spirit, to demoralize them,” Leal said. “But every time there is recognition, the wives and mothers, who have not let a week go by since 2003 without marching, feel they’re not alone, feel that the world hears them and that the world’s eyes are opened to the human rights violations in Cuba.”

Among the awards bestowed upon the women was the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, in 2005.

Cuban exiles around the world have mounted campaigns for the Ladies in White to be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Cuban-American pro-democracy groups praised the White House for recognizing the women.

“Brave activists like the Ladies in White risk terrible repression to express the Cuban people's desire for freedom and democratic change,” said Aramis L. Perez, a Miami-based member of the Secretariat of the Assembly of the Cuban Resistance, a coalition of over 50 pro-democracy groups in Cuba and in exile.

“At a time when the Cuban Communist Party has reaffirmed its commitment to totalitarian rule, additional governments and institutions should join the United States in offering solidarity and recognition for the pro-democracy Cuban resistance.”

Follow Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @LlorenteLatino


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