Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cuban crackdown anniversary marked with protest

Posted on Thursday, 03.18.10
Cuban crackdown anniversary marked with protest
Associated Press Writer

HAVANA -- Hundreds of government supporters surrounded a small group of
Cuban dissidents as they marched through Havana on Thursday on the
seventh anniversary of the arrests of their loved ones, screaming abuse
but otherwise allowing the protest to proceed peacefully.

The Ladies in White, most of them mothers and wives of some of the 75
dissidents arrested in the March 18, 2003 crackdown, have vowed to
protest every day this week to call attention to the plight of political
prisoners, many of whom have been sentenced to decades behind bars.

"We are marching because we have spent seven years in pain and suffering
since the jailing of 75 peaceful opposition figures," said Tania Montoya
Vazquez, whose husband was sentenced to five years in jail in 2008 for
dissident activity. "We are marching in favor of freedom, in favor of
change and in favor of human rights, which should be respected and not

Cuba's human rights record has come into sharp focus since the death of
dissident hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo last month drew
international condemnation. Cuba has issued a series of biting responses
to the criticism, saying it will not give in to pressure.

State television broadcast a two-hour program Wednesday denouncing the
foreign press for participating in what the government sees as a
coordinated anti-Cuba campaign, with Spanish media groups singled out
for the harshest criticism.

The moment the women stepped out of a church on Cuba Street in Old
Havana on Thursday morning, they were surrounded by pro-government
demonstrators who had been milling about outside.

The government claims its supporters come out spontaneously in disgust
at the dissidents. Others believe the government organizes the "acts of
repudiation" and that many of those taking part are members of state

The pro-government crowd grew as the march began, and soon the Ladies in
White were outnumbered, their chants of "Freedom" drowned out by
counter-demonstrators who danced and called them "worms," screaming for
them to get out of Cuba.

"This street belongs to Fidel!" the pro-government demonstrators
shouted. "Fidel, for sure! Give it to the Yankees good!"

At a march by the same group on Wednesday on the outskirts of Havana,
uniformed female security agents halted the march, then grabbed the
marchers and threw them into a government bus. Some of the women were
put in choke holds and others received minor injuries.

But Thursday's demonstration was allowed to proceed past some of the
most iconic streets of Havana. From Cuba Street, the women took the
protest down Obispo and straight to Jose Marti Plaza, home to some of
the capital's grand old tourist hotels.

The Ladies in White held aloft pink gladiolas, the only way to keep
track of them in the multitude.

American and European diplomats were present to observe the march. A few
tourists shot pictures with mobile phones, but most seemed unsure what
to make of the spectacle.

"What is this?" a German woman clutching a Cuba guidebook was overheard
asking the person beside her.

Some of the Cubans looking on from shop windows and balconies shouted
pro-government slogans, but most just stared.

The march continued for about 90 minutes, ending in a working class
neighborhood of central Havana at the home of Laura Pollan, the leader
of the Ladies in White.

From the safety of the home, the women finally vented their anger at
the pro-government demonstrators, screaming: "Assassins! Assassins!" and
"Freedom for the 75!"

Cuba considers the dissidents to be common criminals who are paid by the
United States to destabilize the island's Communist system.

But most of the government's ire this week has been directed at Europe,
not Washington.

The European Parliament on Mar. 11 voted overwhelmingly to condemn Cuba
for Zapata Tamayo's death, and a group of artists and intellectuals
including Pedro Almodovar have begun to circulate a petition criticizing
the Cuban government's actions.

State-owned newspapers have suddenly been filled with stories about
Europe's treatment of minorities, its economic woes and its alleged
complicity in American rendition campaigns against suspected terrorists.

The front page of Thursday's Communist-party daily Granma includes a
cartoon depicting Uncle Sam at a table addressing a portly waitress clad
in a European flag.

"Eurowaitress! Serve me another helping against Cuba," says Uncle Sam.

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