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Sen. McCain and Cuba’s Ladies in White Honored for Promoting Freedom

By Teri West

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the Cuban activist group Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) were awarded the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Freedom Award at a ceremony in Washington D.C. in early May.

The Freedom Award honors “individuals who have made exceptional contributions to the advancement of democracy and human freedom,” according to the IRI.

“The Freedom Award is the recognition of our dedication and motivates us to continue working for the human rights and liberties of all Cubans,” said Blanca Reyes, speaking on behalf of the Ladies in White.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) honors Cuba’s Ladies in White at the IRI Freedom Award ceremony. The Ladies in White have been protesting government repression for over 10 years. (Photo: IRI)

The group holds weekly demonstrations in Cuba advocating for the release of political prisoners.

The movement began in 2003 when 75 activists, lawyers and journalists were detained in Cuba for allegedly seeking to overthrow the government. Women dressed in white began protesting for the prisoners’ freedom several weeks after the event and have continued to do so every Sunday after mass.

It is taboo to wear white in Cuban prisons because it represents resistance to the Castro regime. The IRI encouraged ceremony attendees to wear white in solidarity with the women.

The Cuban government blocked Berat Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, from attending the reception.

“The Ladies in White represent the true Cuba,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the first Cuban American woman elected to Congress. “They are the future.”

When honoring McCain, the chairman of the IRI, speakers praised the senator for maintaining a strong commitment to promoting freedom and combating oppression.

“We saw him stand with the leaders of Ukraine’s democratic movement in the freezing streets of Kiev in December 2013,” IRI Vice Chairman Jim Kolbe said. “He has traveled to Syria to support those fighting against [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad regime’s atrocities. From his early days in Congress, when the Cold War still raged, to today, he has been a clear and consistent opponent of authoritarianism in all its forms.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) speaks at the IRI’s ceremony where he received The Freedom Award. (Photo: IRI)

Before being elected to Congress in 1981, McCain served as a pilot in the Navy for over 20 years. He has been the IRI chairman since 1993.

McCain and the Ladies in White join over 20 years of Freedom Award honorees including former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and former President Ronald Reagan.

The IRI, a nonpartisan organization that helps build democratic governments abroad, has been getting extra attention from the White House recently.

President Trump nominated IRI President Mark Green to head the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in early May. Green is a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania and served as a Wisconsin congressman for eight years.

At the same time, however, the Trump administration has threatened to cut nearly a third of the USAID’s budget.

“Throughout his career, Ambassador Green has worked tirelessly to advance democracy around the world, a priority we have no doubt will continue if he is confirmed,” the IRI wrote in a press release. “We look forward to watching the confirmation process as it unfolds.”

Teri West is an editorial intern of The Washington Diplomat.



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