PRAGUE -- A few days before I arrived in Prague, I participated in a Web conference with the Ladies in White, the relatives of Cuba's prisoners of conscience. I am not at liberty to disclose the logistics, but they were represented by the best-known members of the group, including Laura Pollan and Miriam Leyva, and accompanied by former political prisoners such as economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe. They gathered somewhere in Cuba to share their thoughts with three writers -- Mario Vargas Llosa (my father), Carlos Alberto Montaner and myself -- sitting in a room on the other side of the Atlantic.
The Ladies in White surfaced in 2003, after a Black Spring that saw the imprisonment of 75 Cuban journalists, librarians and activists. The prisoners' wives and sisters began a campaign of protest in Havana by attending Mass at the Church of Santa Rita de Casia, in the neighborhood of Miramar, every Sunday, and then walking down Fifth Avenue dressed in white and carrying photos of their loved ones. Despite harassment by thugs, they continue to defy the government peacefully.
During our chat, they criticized the Castro brothers by name. They explained that the government has sent their relatives to remote prisons and described the horrendous conditions in which they are held. They proudly talked about their husbands' and brothers' refusal to give in. One of the prisoners, Fidel Suarez Cruz, has repeatedly confronted the prison authorities with regard to his companions' deprivations.
Leyva and Pollan deplored the recent decision by the European Union to lift the political sanctions that merely limited diplomatic contacts and instructed the European embassies in Havana to invite dissidents to their events. "These were timid political sanctions," said Leyva, "and lifting them unconditionally means that the government will feel no more pressure." Pollan was particularly grateful to the Czech Republic, Germany and Sweden for denouncing the Castro brothers, and bitterly disappointed at the Spanish government for its role in getting the sanctions lifted.
What about Raul Castro's economic reforms allowing Cubans to buy cell phones, computers and home appliances, and to check into hotels? There was even talk of giving land to Cuban farmers and letting them cultivate it for themselves. "The reforms have been frozen," said Espinosa Chepe. "The government has now begun to viciously persecute Cubans who eke out a living through the black market. There is no reform. There is counter-reform!" The authorities have imposed more than 50,000 fines and shut down dozens of clandestine, makeshift factories, he said.
As a result of the crackdown, there have been many incidents of violence. "In some places, there is a quasi-anarchic situation," according to Espinosa Chepe, "with people throwing stones at buses, destroying public telephones and stealing cables from electricity towers."
It is impossible to verify all these stories, but the European Parliament has awarded the Ladies in White the Sakharov Prize for their courageous protests. Still, they have not received the worldwide recognition that similar groups received elsewhere in their day, including Argentina's Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. This is partly because the Cuban regime is still standing, which makes it impossible to uncover all the information and try those responsible for human rights abuses. But there is also an element of moral hypocrisy. Many governments, international organizations and intellectuals tend to equate supporting Cuban human rights causes with supporting U.S. foreign policy and therefore shun Cuba's victims.
As I walk on Wenceslas Square in Prague, I stop in front of the two plaques that honor the victims of Czech communism. One of them is devoted to Jan Palach, the student who set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet occupation. Czechoslovakia's totalitarian juggernaut crumbled because of people whose tiny, cumulative acts of rebellion had an effect that went far beyond their immediate impact.
That effect only became apparent when the collapse of the system created a moral vacuum that someone had to fill. In such moments, countries turn to their moral reserves. The moral reserve, in the case of Czechoslovakia, was the group of activists known as Charter 77. In 1989, they went from ignominy to the Castle -- the seat of the presidency -- in a swift transfer of power from the Communist Party.
The writers and librarians whose imprisonment the Ladies in White have been denouncing for five years should take comfort in that thought. They and their wives are Cuba's moral reserve, and one of these days the enormity of what they are all doing will be obvious.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is the editor of "Lessons from the Poor" and the director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute.
By Alvaro Vargas Llosa