HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba’s dissident Ladies in White staged their weekly protest march without interference yesterday after the Cuban government dropped its attempted clampdown on the group following intervention by the Catholic church.
It was a rare victory for a Cuban opposition group and followed clumsy government efforts to shut down the women the previous two Sundays by bringing in government supporters to harass them for hours with chants and obscenities.
As they have for seven years, the white-clad women emerged from mass at the Santa Rita de Casias Catholic Church and, with flowers in hand, marched silently along Fifth Avenue in Havana’s upscale Miramar neighbourhood. There were no arrests.
A scattering of Cubans looked on curiously as the 12 women walked along but in contrast to the past two weeks there were no crowds of people waiting to surround and harass them. The previous Sunday, a rough-looking group held the women at bay for seven hours, shouting in their faces and at times making sexually suggestive remarks and gestures. The women have been marching since a 2003 government crackdown in which 75 dissidents, including husbands and sons of the Ladies in White, were imprisoned. Most are still jailed.
The marches have been the only known public protests permitted by authorities since the early 1960s.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, head of the Cuban Catholic church, told reporters he had asked the government not to repeat the “painful events” of the past two Sundays. At mid-week, officials told him to tell the ladies they could march as usual on Sunday, with some provisos.
“I can’t say this enters into a new flexibility. I can say … it’s very good that such a gesture is made,” said Ortega, standing in the church attended by the women.
He said it was normal for the mothers and wives of imprisoned men to seek their freedom.
“They are people who in this sense deserve a respect, a special consideration,” said Ortega, who recently said in an interview with a Catholic publication that Cubans are impatient for change.
Cuba views its small dissident community as “mercenaries” working for the United States and other enemies to topple the communist-led government.
The independent Cuban Human Rights Commision says the island has about 200 political prisoners, but in recent years has turned to short term detentions instead of long prison sentences to keep them under control.