3/17/2010 4:55 PM ET
Police in Cuba on Wednesday stopped a rally taken out by female
relatives of some 50 political prisoners being held in the communist
country, and arrested about 30 women protesters participating in the
The rally was organized in the Cuban capital city of Havana by the
"Ladies in White" group, demanding the release of some 50 political
prisoners who are still being held after their arrests in 2003. It came
just a day ahead of the anniversary of the 2003 crackdown, known as the
Witnesses said that police roughed up the protesters and drove off with
them after forcing them into a truck. Among those participating in the
rally was the mother of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a detained opposition
activist who died last month after he went on a lengthy hunger-strike to
protest against poor prison conditions.
Tamayo died in hospital in Havana on 23rd February, 85 days after going
on a hunger-strike to protest against what he said were poor prison
conditions on the island. He was among a group of 75 dissidents
imprisoned after a crackdown on opposition activists in 2003.
Tamayo is the first Cuban dissident in over 40 years to starve to death
in protest against government abuses. His death caused an international
outrage, and evoked criticism from several countries, including the
United States and the European Union.
The United States said in a statement that the Cuban dissident's death
"highlights the injustice of Cuba's holding more than 200 political
prisoners who should now be released without delay," while the EU
offered condolences to Tamayo's family and reiterated the issue of
Cuba's political prisoners would remain a "key priority for the EU".
Following Tamayo death, Cuban President Raul Castro expressed regret at
his demise and dismissed allegations that the deceased dissident was
tortured or mistreated in jail on the island nation.
Tamayo's death came just days after high-ranking Cuban and U.S.
officials held direct talks on issues related to immigration in the
Cuban capital Havana on Friday, signaling an improvement in the
long-strained ties between the two countries. It is not clear whether
any breakthrough has been achieved in the talks as neither the Cubans
nor the Americans involved in the talks indicated any such development.
The talks followed efforts taken by the U.S. administration under
President Obama to improve relations with its communist neighbor. As a
part of his efforts to re-set ties with Cuba, Obama lifted some of the
travel restrictions on Cuban Americans last year, allowing them to visit
relatives and send money home.
Obama, however, retained the 47-year old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba,
indicating that it will not be lifted until the island nation takes
notable steps towards democracy, including the release of some 219
political dissidents currently jailed in Cuba.
After President Obama relaxed restrictions on travel and money transfers
by Cuban Americans, Cuban President Raul Castro while addressing a
summit of Latin American leftist leaders in Venezuela in April 2009 said
Havana was willing to discuss "everything" with Washington, including
human rights and political prisoners.
A week later, President Obama addressing the Summit of the Americas in
Trinidad said Cuba must take more steps in the right direction if it was
serious in improving ties with Washington.
Cuba has also indicated that it would be willing to release prisoners
held since a 2003 crackdown on dissidents if the U.S. releases the
so-called "Cuban Five," a group of five Cubans convicted of spying in 2001.
Relations between the two countries, however, have been tense in recent
months after Cuba arrested an American contractor at Havana airport on
5th December, alleging that he was a spy sent by Washington to assist in
ousting the communist regime. He has not yet been charged.
To date, Cuba under Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, has survived more
than four decades of U.S. sanctions. Fidel Castro ceded power to his
brother Raul in February 2008, following an emergency stomach surgery in
July 2006, and has made very few public appearances since then. However,
his essays on Cuban and international politics appear frequently on
government websites and state-run news agencies.