Telegraph.co.uk

The pugnacious Ms Pollan was one of Cuba’s leading opposition voices and deeply involved in promoting change on the Communist island.

She developed a pulmonary illness and went into the hospital on Oct 7.

She had been on a respirator in the intensive care ward of Calixto Garcia hospital ever since and died of cardiac arrest, said Berta Soler, her longtime co-leader of the Ladies in White.

Hector Maseda, her husband, said outside the hospital that a medical team had tried for an hour to revive her without success.

“I asked to see her and went to see her body. I was there with her for a while, alone,” said the visibly shaken Mr Maseda.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission of Human Rights, said the loss of Ms Pollan was a big one for opponents of the Cuban government.

“It’s really bad news for the human rights and pro-democracy movement. It’s an irreparable loss. We’ll see with time if others step forward to take her place,” he said.

After 75 dissidents, including Mr Maseda, were imprisoned in a March 2003 crackdown known as Havana’s Black Spring, the former schoolteacher helped found the Ladies in White – with family members of the other prisoners and began staging silent marches every Sunday in Havana to press for their release.

Dressed in white and each carrying a single white flower, they walked silently along a main Havana avenue after attending services at the Santa Rita Catholic Church in the capital’s leafy Miramar neighborhood.

Public protests were unheard of at the time and still rare today. The government tried to stop them by sending out harassing mobs in what are known in Cuba as “acts of repudiation,” but allowed them to continue after intercession by the church.

All 75 people imprisoned in the Black Spring crackdown, who received sentences ranging from six to 28 years, have been released, most of them following a deal between the church and President Raul Castro last year.

One of the last to be freed was Mr Maseda, who was serving a 20-year sentence.

The Ladies in White have continued their Sunday marches, saying there are still political prisoners in Cuba, and this summer launched a second chapter in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, which has met stiff government resistance.

Cuba considers dissidents to be mercenaries working for its longtime enemy the United States, and so far had said nothing about Ms Pollan’s death.

Cuban state media called Ms Pollan and her group “Ladies in Green” referring to the color of dollars they said she received from Washington. She said they accepted aid from whoever would give it, but insisted they were an independent movement.

“We continue being defenders of human rights. We are not politicians, we want freedom for the country, democracy,” she said in a September interview.

Mr Maseda said her body would be cremated and there would be wake in their home in Central Havana.

Her ashes would be spread in a field of flowers, as she had once requested, he said.

—————————————- Havana Journal Comments—————————————-

Statement from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney

The President’s thoughts and prayers are with the family, friends, and colleagues of Laura Pollan, the founder of Las Damas de Blanco, who passed away Friday in Havana. Pollán and the quiet dignity of the Ladies in White have courageously voiced the core desire of the Cuban people and of people everywhere to live in liberty.

Through their brave actions, the Ladies in White draw attention to the plight of those who are unjustly held in Cuba’s prisons and pushed Cuban authorities to release those political prisoners wrongly jailed in the Spring of 2003.

Since the beginning of the Administration we have worked to reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire to freely determine their future and Cuba’s future. We will continue that work in Pollan’s memory.