HAVANA (Reuters) - The leader of Cuba's Ladies in White declared the prominent dissident group stronger on Wednesday after she survived a leadership challenge from disgruntled followers who accused her of abusing her authority.
Berta Soler won a referendum on whether she should continue to head the organization that won the European Parliament's 2005 Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought.
Of 201 ballots cast, 180 were in favor of Soler versus 15 against, Soler announced at the group's Havana headquarters. Six ballots were blank or annulled, and 32 voters including Soler did not submit ballots, she said.
Supporters outside celebrated with shouts of "Long live Berta."
"This means we come out stronger and that we are legitimized. The Ladies in White live in a country where there is no freedom and where a group of women has submitted to a referendum and Berta Soler comes out legitimatized as the leader," Soler said once the vote count showed her with an insurmountable lead.
The group is relatively obscure at home, but has enjoyed prestige abroad. The U.S. government periodically cites the Ladies for their defense of human rights, and Soler has had audiences with both President Barack Obama and Pope Francis.
The group, known for its Sunday marches after Roman Catholic mass, was started by 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, most of the original Ladies have left the group, and founder Laura Pollan died in 2011, leaving Soler in charge.
Internal disputes prompted calls for her resignation, with disaffected members accusing her of abuse of authority, arbitrarily expelling members and misusing funds.
The public fight has added to difficulties for Cuba's tiny dissident community, which faces challenges even when unified.
Police harass and detain dissidents, and the Communist government accuses them of being mercenaries working for the U.S. government.
The Ladies in White, funded largely by anti-Castro exiles in the United States, pays each activist $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 David Gregorio