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Cuban music star Gloria Estefan speaks at a press conference on Tuesday, March 23, 2010, to call for a march in Miami, Florida, to support Cuban protesters. (Pedro Portal/El Nuevo Herald/MCT)
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MIAMI — In a rare personal move, Miami’s music icon Gloria Estefan stepped into the international political spotlight Tuesday to say she is organizing a Little Havana march in support of Las Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), the wives and mothers of imprisoned Cuban opponents of the Raul Castro regime.


Dressed in white at a news conference, the Cuba-born singer and songwriter passionately urged Cuban exiles and others to join her in the march as an expression of solidarity with the Cuban women who last week were violently harassed during a street march to mark the anniversary of the 2003 jailing of 75 dissidents. The Miami march is being held on Calle Ocho, beginning at 6 p.m. EDT Thursday.


“The moment has arrived for us, the Cubans who live in freedom, and all those who wish to join, to offer absolute support and encouragement to the ladies and the people of Cuba,” said Estefan, standing at a lectern in the main dining room of Bongos Cuban Cafe at the AmericanAirlines Arena in downtown Miami.


The announcement comes just a week after members of Ladies in White were confronted violently by Cuban security forces and pro-government civilians in Havana. Members said they were punched, pinched, scratched and had their hair pulled by security agents and civilians, who made rude gestures and swore at them. Agents also dragged them away in buses.


On Tuesday, Estefan asked those who plan to take part in Thursday’s march to wear white, the color worn by the Cuban women’s group. She also encouraged non-Cubans to join her and Cuban exiles: “Our Anglo brothers, our African-American brothers, our Haitian brothers ... people from all nationalities ... anybody that loves freedom, anybody that wants to join our cause, of course is invited and welcome.”


She also personally relayed news of the Miami march to Laura Pollan, spokeswoman for the Ladies in White, reached by phone in Havana during the news conference.


Pollan expressed gratitude. “It’s an honor,” Pollan said, during a shaky phone connection in which every other word was audible.


Estefan and exile community leaders hope the singer’s leadership and name recognition will draw international media attention to the plight of dissidents in Cuba, particularly the Ladies in White, and independent journalist Guillermo Farinas, who has been on a hunger strike since Feb. 24.


Estefan’s aides said that while she has not shied away from broaching opposition to the Cuban regime during her public career, this represents the first time the beloved artist has taken up the issue on a “grand scale.”


So it was on Tuesday when a very different Estefan stepped up to the podium — emerging as a leader with a very political message to deliver.


At the event were several prominent Cuban exile leaders, including Jorge Mas Santos of the Cuban American National Foundation, and Ninoska Perez-Castellon, of the Cuban Liberty Council. Also joining her: singer Willy Chirino, Mayor Tomas Regalado of Miami and several former Cuban political prisoners.


Estefan was dressed in white and, before the announcement, sat among a group of women also dressed in white. She stood at a lectern flanked by photos of the Ladies in White being dragged away by security agents.


Behind Estefan: a photo of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a dissident who died Feb. 23 after an 83-day hunger strike, in the middle of a Cuban flag.


Regalado said Miami police planned to close Calle Ocho beginning at 2 p.m. Thursday and that Estefan planned to cover expenses incurred by city police in providing security.


In addition to wearing white, Estefan asked that everyone carry gladiolas and march in silence from 27th to 22nd avenues, beginning at 6 p.m.


The Ladies in White was formed in 2003 after the Black Spring government crackdown against dissidents in which husbands and sons were picked up and became political prisoners. The women wear white and march periodically, flowers in hand — mostly gladiolas. Last week, the group marched for seven consecutive days to mark the seventh anniversary of the crackdown.

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