Cuban dissident leader fends off leadership challenge

By Rosa Tania Valdés HAVANA (Reuters) - One of Cuba's most prominent dissidents appears to have fended off a challenge to her leadership of a women's opposition movement, but with her reputation dented after disgruntled followers accused her of abusing her authority. Berta Soler is leader of the Ladies in White, a group that won the European Parliament's 2005 Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought. The U.S. government periodically cites the group for its defense of human rights, and Soler has received an audience with both President Barack Obama and Pope Francis. But an internal schism led to calls for her resignation, with disaffected members accusing her of abuse of authority, arbitrarily expelling members and misusing funds. After pro-Soler Ladies shouted down a critic, calling her "traitor" in a video that spread on the Internet, Soler convened a referendum. Final results were to be released on Wednesday, but Soler said on Tuesday night she had all but clinched victory. Of 233 ballots issued, 108 have come back in her favor and nine against her, Soler said, with another nine ballots either annulled or blank. Soler would need only five of the outstanding 107 votes to win. Asked if she considered it a victory, Soler said, "It's looking that way, but I want to wait until tomorrow." The public fight has only added to the difficulties for Cuba's tiny dissident community, which faces challenges even when unified. Police harass and detain them, and the Communist government accuses them of being unpatriotic mercenaries working for the U.S. government. Abroad, the Ladies in White have enjoyed a special prestige. Known for their weekly marches while dressed in their signature color after Roman Catholic mass, they started as the mothers, daughters and wives of 75 dissidents who were sentenced to long prison terms in 2003 as part of a government crackdown known as the Black Spring. Since then, all 75 Black Spring dissidents have been released from prison, most of the original Ladies have left the group, and founder Laura Pollan died in 2011, after which Soler took over. The group survives largely on donations money from anti-Castro exiles in the United States, and each of the Ladies receives $30 for participating in the Sunday marches, Soler said, an amount greater than the typical monthly salary in Cuba. Dissidents say they often have no choice but to accept foreign donations because the government derails their careers and prevents them from holding state jobs. (Reporting by Rosa Tania Valdés and Nelson Acosta; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)