rome taken from Vatican Insider
“Siga adelante!”, “Continue as you are doing!”, Pope Francis told Berta Soler, the leader of Cuba’s courageous “Damas de Blanco” (“Women in White”), when he met her after the public audience in the Vatican on May 8, and gave her and the women his blessing.
She was overjoyed at meeting the pope, and at receiving his blessing for the more than 230 “Women in White” who work for the release of “hundreds” of political prisoners and for the affirmation of human rights and freedom in Cuba, she told me after meeting the pope.
She had left Cuba on March 11 after receiving a passport for the first time in her life under the Government’s new policy, and was in Madrid when she received confirmation that she could finally meet the pope, and so she flew to Rome.
Yesterday morning she took her place with the other special guests on the steps of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican just before the first Latin American Pope in the history of the Church arrived at the podium for the public audience. After addressing some 100,000 pilgrims from all continents in St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis then greeted the special guests individually.
Berta Soler, 48, and another member of the “Women in White”, Clara Maria del Valle, both dressed in white, waited with anticipation, and when he reached them she spoke rapidly in Spanish. She told him, “We are the ‘Damas de Blanco’ from Cuba, the relatives of hundreds of political prisoners, and we ask for your help, and also for your blessing on us and all the people who are in need in Cuba.”
Pope Francis listened attentively, smiled, held her hand, gave his blessing and told her, “Siga adelante!” “Continue as you are doing!”
It was what she and the “Women in White” had long wanted to hear from the Pope. “It was a great day for me, we – the “Damas de Blanco” have always had great faith in Christ, and now it is doubled”
I had met her just over a year ago in Havana, on the eve of Benedict XVI’s arrival in Cuba and she told me then, “all we want is one minute with the Pope!” But she and the “Damas de Blanco” were disappointed on that occasion; the Cuban authorities did not want them to meet the Pope and the Church authorities in Havana and Rome acquiesced.
But the “Women in White” never give up. They re-presented their request for a meeting with the Pope at the end of 2012, and last February the papal nuncio in Havana, Archbishop Bruno Musaro, informed them that their request had been granted: they could meet Benedict XVI at a public audience in the Vatican. But Pope Benedict resigned some days later and so they had to wait until May 8. Berta Soler said the ‘Damas de Blanco” are most grateful to Benedict XVI for his willingness to meet them and, of course, they are overjoyed that the first Latin American pope blessed and encouraged them.
“We have great faith and hope in Christ, but not so much in man”, she said referring to the situation in Cuba. “We think a Latin American Pope is very good for us. Pope Francis knows a little better they problems that our peoples have, he comes from far down and he can help the people who are suffering”, she said.
She recalled the role the Catholic Church played in Poland and Czechoslovakia to help the people there have a new country and good things and said, “That is what we need in Cuba too.”
“The people of Cuba need many blessings, and we feel the blessing of Pope Francis will be very good for us”, she said happily.
“We need freedom, but first and foremost we need respect for human rights in Cuba”, she told me when we first met in the capital of this Caribbean island of some 11 million people, roughly 70% of whom are baptized Catholic.
“There is no respect for human rights in Cuba”, she said; she blamed the Government for this. As for freedom, she believes “this depends on us Cubans, not on the Pope”.
Berta Soler first became active in human rights when her husband was arrested together with 74 other human rights activists in 2003. At that time she was working as a technician in the micro-biology field and liked her job, but after his arrest she left that work to campaign for this and heir release. “I did it for love, for love of my family, for love of my country”, she stated.
She and the “Women in White” are committed to peaceful protest and reject violence as a means to reach their end. In 2003 they started the tradition of going to Mass every Sunday before marching on the streets of Havana to promote their cause. “We do not advocate revolution. We do not use violence. We march peacefully on the streets. We have two arms: our white dresses and the gladiolas – which represent the family”, she said. They dress in white “because it is a symbol of purity”, and they chose the church of Saint Rita “because she is the advocate of impossible situations” and the parish priest there supports them.
Although her husband and the other 74 are now free, there are “hundreds more” political prisoners in Cuba today she says but the government seeks to label them as common criminals, and for this reason the “Damas de Blanco” continue praying and marching in Cuban cities. Often the police intervene on the instructions of the Ministry of the Interior to break up their marches, and even beat the women, as happened recently in the city of El Cobre, but that does not stop them.
Asked whether she considered the Government’s new policy in allowing people to have passports marked a significant change, she said it is more “cosmetic” than substantial, and some people – including her husband – were refused passports. Substantial change is needed in Cuba and it has not come under Raul Castro she stated, and so the Damas de Blanco will keep on marching until they gain real freedom and until human rights are respected in this island. She hopes people outside Cuba will continue supporting them.
Asked if she is afraid that the Cuban authorities might crack down on her once she returns home, Berta Soler said, “I am not afraid. I have love for life and love for God, and now that I have been blessed by Pope Francis I have no fear.”