Brian Wagner | Miami 26 March 2010
Tens of thousands of people have marched in Miami to protest a recent
crackdown in Cuba against dissident groups on the island.
Cuban-Americans say there is a rising tide of resentment against the
Cuban regime and the failure of promised reforms.
People dressed all in white filled the streets of the Miami neighborhood
known as Little Havana for the march late Thursday. Many carried Cuban
flags and chanted messages calling for freedom in Cuba.
Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan helped organize the event and led
marchers in the singing of the national anthems of Cuba and the United
States. Near the close of the march, Estefan said they had received word
that a dissident group was also marching in Havana. "At this moment they
are receiving violence again. They are joined with us here," she said.
News reports from Havana said Thursday that Cuban police dragged away
several protesters from the opposition group known as ladies in white
(Las Damas de Blanco). The group includes many spouses and other
relatives of dissidents jailed in Cuba. They have held several marches
this week to demand the release of loved ones and mark the seventh
anniversary of a major crackdown called "black spring."
Supporters of pro-democracy groups say other recent protests have taken
place in Havana and in the countryside, suggesting that frustration at
the government is on the rise.
University of Miami professor Andy Gomez says it is partly due to
President Raul Castro's failure to deliver on his promises to improve
the quality of life for many Cubans. "The level of frustration has
continued to increase and yet at the same time, they are going through
the worst economic crisis since the special period when they lost their
subsidies from the Soviet Union," he said.
Pro-democracy groups also have received a new boost from Afro-Cuban
leaders, who traditionally were seen as a strong supporter of Communist
policies. That image was shaken last month when black dissident Orlando
Zapata Tamayo died, after an 85-day hunger strike in prison.
Orlando Gutierrez leads the Miami-based Cuban Democratic Directorate.
"Here we have a working class black man from eastern Cuba who was
peacefully advocating change. They imprison him and then, when he goes
on a hunger strike, they deny him water for 18 days. They kill him, and
people know that," said Gutierrez.
U.S. President Barack Obama said Zapata Tamayo's death and the
harassment of protesters was deeply disturbing, and he called for the
release of political prisoners.
In Cuba, President Castro expressed regret for the death, but the
incident sparked another wave of marches to protest the conditions of
Gutierrez says if marches continue in Cuba, the movement is likely to
generate even more supporters. "Cuba's pro-democacy movement, the ladies
in white, they're going into the streets, they are talking to people,
they are carrying out protests throughout Cuba. People are seeing these
guys are the option, they are the alternative," he said.
University of Miami's Andy Gomez says that frustration is also on the
rise among Cuba's large youth population, especially university students
concerned about their future in Cuba. But he says Cuba's government has
a history of quelling dissent before too long.
"The question I ask myself is up to what point is the government going
to allow this to continue, because it can get out of hand very quickly,"
Pro-democracy advocates say the United States could consider new
measures as well, in an effort to push the Communist nation toward
greater respect for human rights.