Las Damas de Blanco & the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons: Members of Cuban human rights group "Damas de Blanco" at their weekly demonstration following Sunday mass in Havana.

"If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr of the United States Supreme Court was speaking in 1929, yet his words are, if anything, more relevant today than in many decades. The rule of law, once a bulwark of modern democratic societies, is in retreat across the world. The mark of societies which respect the rule of law, which respect human rights and freedoms, is not how we treat those who agree with us, but our reactions to those whose views we cannot understand and condone. Indeed Holmes’ remarks, advocating for the right to dissent, are even more apposite when we consider that he himself was dissenting from a majority position in that case. 

The ability to stand apart from our fellow citizens and express our views, regardless of their objective ‘correctness’, is itself a safety valve for democracy. The value is not necessarily in the views themselves, but rather, the realisation of the strength to which they are adhered to by others. By realising the passion of our conceptual ‘opponents’ we have to examine and interrogate our own views, justifying them to ourselves, before looking to persuade others. Moreover, the importance of views and perspectives are highlighted when, in the face of robust challenge, they are sustained. 

The Sakharov Prize
Nearly a century after Holmes was speaking, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is now awarded every year by the European Parliament to those deemed to be the fiercest advocates and luminaries of the free expression he so powerfully defended. Established in 1988 in the name of Andrei Sakharov, the celebrated Russian scientist, dissident and Nobel Laureate, the prize is awarded to those who dedicate their lives to the defence of human rights generally, and freedom of thought specifically. In choosing this patronage, the European Parliament wanted to imbue their newly created prize with a personification of freedom of thought and expression. As Jean-Francois Deniau,the rapporteur proposing the prize, noted,  Sakharov, who had decided, on the strength of his convictions alone to eschew the benefits and honours otherwise due to a scientist of his calibre, would provoke a more immediate resonance than any temporally distant proponents of free expression, such as Sophocles or Erasmus.  

 A shortlist of potential recipients is drawn up by MEPs sitting on the Committees of Foreign Affairs and Development, with each candidate requiring endorsements from a minimum of 25 members to go forward. The award decision is ultimately made by the Parliament’s Conference of Presidents, consisting of the President of the European Parliament and the principals of the Parliament’s constituent political groups. Notable former winners (and in the case of the latter pair, subsequently Nobel Peace Prize Laureates) include Alexander Dubcek, Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan. However more recent recipients are, generally, ordinary people emboldened by a desire to respect the most basic aspects of human personhood. These ‘ordinary people’ (in a deliberately fallacious reading of that term) include Denis Mukwege - a gynaecologist treating victims of systemic rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo - and Oleg Sentsov - a dissident Ukrainian film director. From journalists and jobseekers to priests and politicians, the recipients come from all walks of life. Some are plucked from (relative) obscurity and spotlighted by the Sakharov prize, whilst others are public figures ab initio. All are equally deserving.

The Ladies in White
It is in defence of Holmes’ idea which saw the Sakharov Prize awarded to the ‘Ladies in White’ in 2005 (along with co-recipients Reporters without Borders and Nigerian lawyer Hauwa Ibrahim). ‘Las Damas de Blanco’ [Damas], as they are known in their native Cuba, are a group consisting of the wives, mothers, daughters and supporters of political prisoners arrested following the Cuban government’s crackdown in 2003, widely known as the ‘Black Spring’. The authorities, acting without credible legal sponsor or evidence, arrested over 75 notable anti-government individuals, all supposed agents of the United States of America. Whilst those arrested included journalists and political activists, librarians and shopkeepers were also caught in the government’s indiscriminately wide-net. Although Cuba maintained the arrests were in response to foreign espionage rather than governmental critiques, multiple international human rights organisations and observers observed otherwise. The European Union went as far as anyone, declaring the arrests ‘constituted a breach of the most elementary human rights, especially as regards freedom of expression and political association’. 

In response to these egregious breaches, a group of women began just two weeks after the arrests to meet every Sunday in the cavernous Church of Santa Rita (the saint, unironically as it would turn out, of hopeless causes) in Havana. The participants attended Mass before silently walking, arm-in-arm, through the streets of the Cuban capital to a local park. Each woman would dress all in white, with a button photograph of their particular relative and the length of their sentence. They would peacefully protest the continuing injustice being perpetrated. Emphasising their commitment to justice, the women also carry gladiolus flowers during their protests - a flower consistently associated with strength and integrity, the very values the Sakharov Prize speaks to.

The gatherings were originally initiated by Laura Pollán, a teacher turned protester, whose husband was among those arrested. Historically a supporter of the Castro regime, Pollán was apathetic to politics in the years before her husband’s arrest. Speaking in 2008, she joked she had preferred staying in the kitchen to make coffee when conversation became too overtly political (her husband was a journalist and his peers were involved with the forbidden Liberal Democrat party). Her apathy, however, could not withstand such a personal affront as her husband’s arrest, nor his sentencing to 20 years in prison for conspiring to undermine the ‘territorial integrity of the State’. Describing her transformation from apolitical bystander to leading light of human rights in the island country she said, ‘I started fighting for my husband, then for the group, and now it’s for changes for the better of the country’. Such was her life mantra.

The group’s all-white garb drew inspiration from myriad historical precedents. Another infamous South American example of such colour-based protest is the Argentinian ‘Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo’. This group also drew on the colour’s connotations of innocence and purity in holding vigils in Buenos Aires, demanding information about their children, who had gone missing during the 1970s military dictatorship. They were also awarded the Sakharov Prize in 1992, the first group to be so recognised. In South-East Asia meanwhile, in 1986, yellow-clad peaceful revolutionaries ousted the despotic President Marcos in the Philippines, ushering in a republic which has lasted to this day. 

Sakharov Prize Awarded 
In mid-2005, the Committee on Foreign Affairs recommended the shortlist of the three ultimate winners from a long list of 10 worthy candidates. All three were then confirmed as joint recipients of the Sakharov Prize by the Conference of Presidents of the European Parliament. As with every year, hard choices are inevitable in awarding this prize and reflect a particular commendation of the winners rather than a rejection of the efforts of the other candidates. The European Parliament particularly recognised the Damas’ ‘courage and determination’ in protesting in a country where protest is, simply, not tolerated. 

Although their two joint co-winners were in attendance at the December award ceremony in Strasbourg, the Damas (and the particular key individuals to whom the award had been directly awarded - including Pollán) were not. Cuba, in what some condemned as vindictive efforts to minimise the exposure of their own human rights abuses, continued to restrict their free movement and travel. The women were denied the right to travel to collect the prize awarded to them for their resistance to their denial of other human rights. The sad irony of this, and the narrative of blatant disrespect for human rights which it exposed, were not lost on those in attendance. 

Ultimately, the group was represented by Blanca Reyes, a former member of the group, who collected the award on their behalf and made a statement reaffirming the group’s commitment to human rights protections in light of such international recognition. 

Interestingly, this would not be the last time a Cuban Sakharov Prize winner was refused permission to collect the award by the Castro regime; dissident, journalist and prolific hunger-striker Guillermo Fariñis, was awarded the prize in 2010 following repeated protests at the treatment and killings of fellow dissident. However, as the Damas were 5 years earlier, he was denied leave to collect the award, and consequently, a seat was left deliberately empty for him at the ceremony. This designedly overt act can be traced to the fate of Andrei Sakharov himself in the 1980s. Debating a motion on the Russian in 1984 the European Parliament a proposal was made that a seat be left permanently vacant in the Parliament Chamber for Sakharov. This would also symbolise all those anonymous and uncelebrated others across the world who ‘suffered for their ideas’ and for asserting their human rights. Although the final resolution was adopted without this ‘empty seat’ symbol, the poetic elegance of the solution in 2005 and 2010, in mirroring it, intentionally or otherwise, is poignant.

Protests Continue
During the Damas’ years of protests, few Sundays went by unobserved by protest. Apparently, these silent protests continued even during several cyclones and tornadoes, held their silent protest. While injustice (and the wind and rain) raged they refused to withdraw, yield or allow the government to otherwise deter them. They gathered in constant defiance of the government, in constant assertion of their right to disagree, their right to protest and, fundamentally, their right for freedom of thought, be it hated or loved by their country’s authorities.

An unusually direct protest took place on a Monday in April 2008. The women presented themselves in Revolution Square, near the offices of the newly-appointed President Raul Castro, hoping to levy the new appointee’s relative inexperience (at least compared to his brother, Fidel, a veteran who had, under various titles, led his country for nearly half a century) to their advantage. Their direct sit-in style protest was not, however, tolerated as their peaceful walking vigils had been. Within minutes, a crowd of pro-government supporters (official and otherwise) gathered to remove the deliberately unreactive and silent group of women. 

The Cuban government’s attempts to discredit the group, either by re-branding them as the ‘Women in Green’ (an allusion to their apparent funding by American dollars) or, less subtly, by interrupting their protests, either with police or jeering counter-protesters, were largely unsuccessful. Furthermore, the Sakharov Prize gave the women a degree of international notoriety which, as a result, discouraged the Cuban authorities from muzzling them completely, or taking more aggressive counter-actions. The publicity boon, to the group, of the authorities attempting to destroy the recipients of one of the world’s leading Human Rights awards would not have been underestimated. Indeed, the Damas themselves described the Prize as a ‘shield protecting [their] peaceful fight’. The government was reluctant to further amplify their spotlight or risk creating martyrs. The group are, therefore, the only group authorised to protest in the entirety of Cuba, the previously blanket-rule having proved ineffective in restraining them in any case. 

The initial aim of their protests was finally fulfilled in July 2010, when the last of the initial group of arrested dissidents were released. Although the majority were exiled to Spain - Pollán’s husband, along with many others, refused to go; holding steadfast to their innocence and their incorrigible human right to freedom of expression and thought - his return home was thus delayed until early 2011. The prisoners’ release followed intervention by representatives of the Catholic Church and the Spanish government. However, the Damas, recognising the uniqueness of their position, both domestically and internationally, decided to use their attained status to continue their protest, with the pervading denial of human rights in Cuba their new target, the release of all political prisoners in Cuba their new inspiration. 

Following the death of Pollán in late 2011, Berta Soler, a former microbiologist and the group’s co-founder (who had also been individually recognised by the European Parliament in 2005) took greater prominence. She oversaw this transition to a general human rights organisation, concerned with national and global issues. The group was also opened to wider membership of Cuban women generally.

Justice Delayed - Not Denied
Much like human rights, the Sakharov Prize does not expire. In 2013, therefore, when the women were finally granted permission to collect the award, many leaving Cuba for the first time in their lives, they were greeted by an adoring and attentive European Parliament in Brussels. 

Members of the Parliament, many members of an informal ‘Friends of Cuba’ grouping in the Chamber, spoke of their delight and honour in meeting the women in person. Andrzej Grzyb, the Polish Vice-Chairman of the Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights explained how the prize’s eventual collection, although unfathomably delayed, increased his personal ‘faith that persistence in fighting for freedom bears fruit’. The Parliament’s President Martin Schulz meanwhile was among the most emphatic speakers, concluding that ‘[n]o dictatorship in the world will be able to stop democracy in the long run. No people can be oppressed forever’.

Laura Labrada, Pollán’s daughter, accepted the award on behalf of the group, celebrating their fight to ‘exercis[e] the most sacred human right: to live according to one's own conscience’. A minute’s silence was held to remember her mother, who Soler described as the group’s ‘driving force’ and chief animator. 

Making a simultaneous speech in Havana, Cuba’s Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Abelardo Moreno attempted to create a counter-narrative, arguing that few have done as much for human rights since the revolution as Cuba, stressing the country’s free healthcare and education over its freedom (or lack thereof) of thought. He pointed to the very fact that the Damas had been permitted to travel as evidence of his claim. However, the delay in their travelling, as well as their repeated arrests for peaceful protesting, both before and after claiming the award, make this argument untenable. Any human rights restored have been cosmetic.

Fariñas also received his award in a ceremony in 2013.  

The Church’s Role
The Catholic Church was pivotal in orchestrating and reconciling the various parties to the negotiated releases in 2010 and 2011. Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Dionisio Garcia, the archbishop of Santiago were the key clerics involved. Where previously negotiations had stalled, unable to progress past long-held grievances, Ortega and his colleagues brought a ‘qualitative’ difference to proceedings - that according to Orlando Marquez, a spokesperson for the Church in Cuba. Ortega, who, before his death in 2019, had been compared to his long-time friend Pope John Paul II (originally the Polish activist-priest Karol Wojty?a), had emerged as a key figure in Cuban politics in recent decades. In addition to his involvement with the Damas, he was even seconded to hand-deliver a private letter to President Barack Obama in advance of the détente in US-Cuban diplomatic relations in 2015.

However, although integral to the prisoner releases, as well as defusing particularly violent counter-protests in May of 2010, Ortega and the Damas did not always see eye to eye. Indeed, he was later denounced by Soler for his obsequience to and assimilation with the Castro regime. In the years following the negotiations, he denied the existence of any political prisoners in Cuba and refused to recognise the Damas as a legitimate government opponent. Citing the Church’s supposed neutrality, he insisted his role was not to agitate against the government. However, led by Soler, the Damas maintained that in refusing to protest the government’s blatantly anti-Christian and human-rights-denying actions, Ortega was not only refusing to agitate against the government, but he was effectively acting as their agent.

Although this charge was never proven, some facts speak for themselves. Mere weeks in advance of two papal visits, in 2012 and 2015, dozens of Damas were arrested in the course of their usual protests. Although frequently detained throughout their years of peaceful protest, there were, according to both the Damas and neutral observers, particular spikes in government censure in those periods. Could it be a coincidence that just when the Catholic establishment in Cuba would have been desperate to create a good impression, the usual protests were unusually interrupted? 

In 2012, 70 Damas were detained over the course of a single weekend, the majority of whom were kept in jail overnight before being released without charge. Although the arrests generally following various attempted protests, some were detained on merely their way into Mass in Havana. 

In 2015, meanwhile, over 50 Damas were similarly arrested in the course of their protests. Their requests to meet Pope Francis were denied by the Cuban authorities, and multiple reports indicated their members were barred from attending the public masses given by the Pontiff in Havana. The Pope himself later telephoned the group for a ‘social call’, seemingly willing, unlike his local colleagues, to engage with dissident opinions. 

While Ortega met with Soler in the weeks after the visit of Pope Benedict in 2012, the two were not reconciled. In 2015 meanwhile, no meeting was even contemplated. Although hugely visible in the media in the days surrounding the visit, he was notably silent when asked to condemn the actions taken against the Damas. 

While the Church’s actions were pivotal in securing the release of the prisoners in 2010, since then its relationship with human rights protections in Cuba has been somewhat tenuous. Geopolitical developments and advancements aside, increased government-sponsored counter-protests and arrests have inexorably pre-empted notable Church events for nigh on 10 years. Particularly considering the previous antipathy (or outright antagonism) of the Castro regime towards the Catholic faith, it could be argued that the Church was seizing the chance at power presented by the contemporaneous political détente. Indeed, some have argued that, in seeking to promote their political prosperity in Cuba, Ortega et al have trodden on the oppressed citizens of Cuba underfoot. For many, the Catholic Church’s non-confrontational approach in Cuba verges on complicity. 

Freedom For The Thought We Hate
The right to respectful disagreement, of peaceful free expression, is one which is not easily defeated or disputed. It is one which the Damas adhere to fervently. Although primarily in defence of their own right to disagree, they constantly strive to acknowledge the right’s universality. In November 2016, Soler, in an extraordinarily rare move, called off a Sunday protest. Why? She wished to respect the passing of Fidel Castro, the leader whose policies her group had cumulatively protested for over a decade, whose government had systematically denied them access to justice and to their own human rights. She decided; “as fighters of human rights groups, to respect the pain which we don’t share”. Such magnanimity and generosity to one’s (legitimate) opponent was staggering. It was also appropriate; consistent with the values the Damas themselves had long asserted - the right to safely, peaceably and respectfully disagree. 

In addition to the Sakharov Prize, the group has received multiple international awards in recognition of their commitment to human rights and free expression. In April 2011, they received the American Human Rights Defender Awards. In 2018, they received the Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty, along with the attendant cheque of $250,000. 

2018 was a propitious year for human rights itself, with various monuments of international human rights law and practice celebrating significant anniversaries. Speaking at the Sakharov Prize’s own 30th anniversary celebrations Kate Gilmore, the Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights acknowledged the 25th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration, which established her office, the 20th anniversary of the Human Rights Defenders Declaration and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She remarked human rights are not and never have been the preserve of white, modern or European countries, much as popular culture may try to depict them as such. In drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she highlighted the West was ‘among the more reluctant drafters’, with Latin countries taking the lead on social and economic rights, the Soviet Union on non-discrimination and India and Pakistan on equality. The Damas, and many other Sakharov Prize recipients, exemplify this universality. As Gilmore’s speech nobly concluded “[s]tanding up for human rights is older than history”. Indeed, it is older than political parties or geographical borders.

The Sakharov Prize was intended to pay homage to those people at the coalface of human rights fights throughout the world, often (and particularly) those in circumstances of great adversary. The recipients span the human experience, on a boundaryless continuum of origins, priorities and emotions. The common, unifying factor of all recipients is not only that they have seen the urgent need to promote basic human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law, but they have answered this call, often devoting their lives to the cause.

To conclude, I paraphrase Albus Dumbledore, no less eminent a source than Justice Holmes (albeit a fictional one); while it can take a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, it often takes a great deal more to stand up to our friends, in defence of those whose views we reject, whilst respecting their right to hold them. 

The immeasurably brave Damas de Blanco have gone beyond redressing their direct grievance, to advocate for universal human rights - for their friends, their enemies, and most importantly, strangers to them. From the most personal of relationships, the best of friends, the closest of family members, they have moved to fight for human rights everywhere and for everyone. In 2013, the group left Brussels vowing not to ‘disappoint’ the legacy of the Sakharov Prize. No one could possibly argue they have done so. In fact, no one could possibly have done more.  

They recognised that freedom of expression is not the freedom to express views that will be favourably or indifferently received but rather, as the European Court of Human Rights has recognised, freedom to express views that shock, offend or disturb the State or their contemporaries; ‘[s]uch are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no "democratic society"’. They recognise that human rights are inalienable and immutable; their importance does not vary with media spotlights; when the news moves on, the human rights the increased spotlight restored, highlighted or established must not be swept away. This battle is not a fleeting one. 8 years may have passed between the Sakharov Prize being awarded to ‘Las Damas de Blanco’ and its collection, but it seems likely that 8 more years could have passed and the brave protestors of Santa Rita’s patronage would still be fighting, in their unique way, for human rights. For them, no desperate situation is a hopeless cause.