In the spring of 2003, the Cuban government arrested and summarily tried and sentenced 75 human rights defenders, independent journalists, and librarians to terms of up to 28 years in prison. Many of them were organizers for the Varela Project, a grassroots initiative for constitutional reform. The wave of arrests is widely considered the most severe crackdown on civil society that Cuba has seen in years. The repressive move was roundly condemned by foreign governments, the United Nations and human rights organizations. Of the 75 who were imprisoned, 20 have since been conditionally released for health reasons, and one has completed his sentence.
Following the arrests, the wives and relatives of those imprisoned in the crackdown formed the Ladies in White (“Damas de Blanco”). Their method of protest and dissent is entirely peaceful; every Sunday, dressed in white, the women meet at mass held in the Santa Rita church, and then walk together down Fifth Avenue in Havana in silent protest of the unjust incarceration of their loved ones and the lack of fundamental freedoms in Cuba. The Ladies in White have sent letters and appealed directly to foreign governments and Cuban officials demanding the unconditional release of all political prisoners.
In the face of persistent threats, insults and attempts to silence them by the Cuban government and its civilian mobs, these courageous activists remain steadfast in their struggle for justice and human rights, and in their commitment to peaceful advocacy. Their work to promote human rights in Cuba has earned the recognition and respect of the international community. In October 2005, the Ladies in White were awarded the prestigious Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament, and in 2006, Human Rights First honored them for their brave defense of human rights.