Cuban government allows Ladies in White to march

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.

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