No Peace for Paula

In Cuba she was a symbol, the Madonna of the Counterrevolution. But in Miami, it's a different kind of fight for Paula Valiente.

She cradles the statue in the crook of her arm as she continues reciting the rosary, her voice rising with the wind and with emotion. Dios te salve Maria, llena eres de gracia.... Neck straight, she dips her head with the rhythm of her speech. When she looks back up, the still-blue sky reflects in her eyes. Her fists are clenched. Bendita tu eres entre todas las mujeres y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesus.... Some members of the circle follow the litany, others look toward the horizon. Between rosary repetitions, Valiente prays for the liberation of Cuban political prisoners. Three-quarters of an hour later, the group makes its way back up the grassy knoll to Mass.

This modest gathering is intended to carry on the peregrinaciones Valiente led in Cuba. There she convened processions to the Malec centsn, Havana's famed sea-wall promenade, where the participants, numbering from a dozen to about a hundred, tossed white flowers into the water, praying and demanding freedom for political prisoners. Yemaya's traditional color is white, and as the flowers fell into the water, they became for their throwers orichas, the Santeria deities themselves. At some point during each procession, the group gathered at the church of the Virgen de Regla (on the 8th of the month) or the church of the Virgen de las Mercedes (on the 24th). The two dates are significant: September 8 is the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the holy day in Cuba for the Virgen de la Caridad, the nation's patron saint; September 24 is dedicated to the Virgen de las Mercedes (Our Lady of Mercies, the patron saint of prisoners).

The dates of Valiente's arrests, then, generally correspond to the days of the Virgins. She readily details the occasions on which the police or the Rapid Response Brigades, government-sponsored citizens' vigilante groups, kicked and hit her, and with what: sticks, electric cables, fists, rubber tubing. After commencing her open opposition to the Castro regime in 1991, Valiente says, she was arrested fifteen times; each time she subsequently described the incident by phone to La Voz de la Fundaci centsn and Radio Marti. In 1992 her conviction in a Havana court for "instigating crimes" (one-year sentence, suspended) was reported in the Havana newspaper Tribuna.

Valiente says that one of her worst moments came last year, not on a day of the Virgin but on Jose Marti's birthday, January 28, when she was beaten by members of the Rapid Response Brigade after having interrupted a Communist youth rally in Old Havana with shouts of "­Viva Cuba libre!" "They threw me on the ground, they kicked me in the womb, which caused me to urinate right there, and I fainted," she recalls. "Then they dragged me to the police station nearly naked, and they sat me down in the middle of the station among all the men. It was a way to degrade me."

Valiente claims the beating caused lasting damage to her kidneys and uterus and says she will have to undergo surgery sometime before June, when her Medicaid coverage expires. She's unclear, however, about where she'll go for the operation and who will perform it. In the meantime she appears physically robust and is planning a pilgrimage of several miles on foot. Such violent treatment, however, would seem incongruous, especially of a woman so closely identified with the Catholic church, which has been experiencing a resurgence of popularity in Cuba over the past several years. Against a woman, furthermore, who many Cuban intellectuals view as folklor, a simple figure not to be taken seriously, one who would recommend home remedies for a devastating disease.

But no matter how much substance underpins her martyr's stance, Valiente has provoked a strong response from the Cuban government and she continues to capture imaginations and shore up hopes in el exilio. "There is something very symbolic about a black woman walking with the Virgin; in many ways she is embodying Cubanness to the fullest," says Damian Fernandez, director of the graduate program in international studies at Florida International University. "The fact she did this publicly is very meaningful. It's really a challenge to the power of the state, in a country where symbolism is so important, where people have to speak in codes and the regime uses a lot of symbols and myth to legitimize itself. This woman brings together the syncretic nature of the Cuban people: We can believe in everything and nothing at the same time."

Fernandez and other scholars point to the abundant use of religious iconography early in the Cuban revolution, including frequent comparisons of Castro to Christ. They believe the government's awareness of the power of religious symbolism, compounded by the maternal image of suffering projected by Valiente, caused a disproportionately violent reaction to her crusades.

And in a society in crisis, the citizenry may be more apt to grasp for miracles. The power of myth is magnified, both in the eyes of the people and in the eyes of the authorities. "The government is very sensitive to such appeals to the emotions," explains a scholar of religion in Havana, who did not want his name used in this story. While he dismisses Valiente's ultimate counterrevolutionary value, he isn't surprised the government would feel threatened. "In the present instability, the smallest thing could ignite a spark that could in an instant become a fire," says the scholar. "So the police have to stamp out every spark they can find."

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