Cuba's tiny dissident community gathered on Saturday to mourn the loss of one of its most prominent leaders, Ladies in White founder and leader Laura Pollan, who for years made her home a headquarters for planning protests against the communist government.
Family members, government opponents and diplomats gathered at Pollan's house in a working-class neighborhood of Havana, welcomed by her widower, formerly imprisoned dissident Hector Maseda. The US Interests Section in Cuba brought a floral wreath.
"We have had a physical loss. It's not easy especially for me, because we have been together these past eight years," said Bertha Soler, who helped Pollan found the group in 2003 to press for the release of their husbands and 73 other activists, social commentators and government opponents imprisoned in a crackdown on dissent.
Pollan, 63, died Friday night of cardiorespiratory failure, a week after being hospitalized with an aggressive respiratory virus. Family members reported that Pollan's doctors tried for nearly an hour to revive her.
"They acquitted themselves well. Professionally they are very capable," Maseda said.
In the front living room, which for years was decorated with portraits of Maseda and 74 other dissidents jailed in 2003, only a painting of Pollan was on display Saturday surrounded by flowers, a rosary and candles. The last of the dissidents, including Maseda, were released earlier this year under a deal brokered by the Roman Catholic Church.
Pollan's body was cremated before dawn. Half the ashes were taken to her birth city of Manzanillo in eastern Cuba, and the rest were in the Havana home.
"We are going to do what she wished ... and scatter her ashes in a flowery field," Maseda said.
Pollan was one of the most prominent and vocal opposition figures in a country where those who dissent publicly risk reprisals or imprisonment. Even after the Ladies accomplished the goal for which they were founded, the group continued to protest against the government, which excoriated the women as traitors doing the bidding of the United States.
Soler, considered the group's No. 2 leader despite its avowed nonhierarchical organization, said the Ladies will continue their weekly protest marches following Sunday Mass, dressed in white and carrying gladiolas.
"Everything will continue as always, without the physical presence of Laura Pollan, but spiritually she will be with us," Soler said. "Tomorrow we will go to the Church of Santa Rita as we have been doing for eight years."
In Washington, the White House issued a statement praising Pollan and her group.
"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," it said. "Pollan 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."
There was no mention of Pollan's death in Cuban state media, which normally ignores dissidents' activity except to accuse them of being stooges of Washington.
But the pro-government blog La Pupila Insomne noted her passing and said the doctor who attended her, Armando Elias Gonzalez Rivera, confirmed that she suffered from a viral attack.
Condolences also came from the Cuban exile community in Miami, where a Mass was announced for later Saturday in Pollan's honor.
Cuban-American singer and actor Gloria Estefan called Pollan "the personification of the strength of the Cuban woman" and "a shining example of courage, peace and perseverance that will serve as a guide to those who struggle for a free Cuba."