Dissidents steal headlines from Cuban election
By PAUL HAVEN
Associated Press Writer
HAVANA -- Nearly every eligible Cuban cast ballots in a vote the
communist government proclaims is proof of the island's democracy. But
if headlines were made, it was by six elderly women standing under an
ancient ficus tree, enduring seven hours of insults and obscenities for
demanding political prisoners be freed.
Cuba complains the foreign media makes way too much of a small, divided
dissident movement that has little sway with ordinary people. But the
government has helped draw attention to the women - known as the Damas
de Blanco, or Ladies in White - by choosing, with no explanation, to
start blocking their small weekly protests after seven years of
Wayne Smith, a former top American diplomat in Havana, said the unwanted
attention began when the government decided to take a hard line.
"The Damas have been marching for a long time and it hasn't raised any
problems" for the government, said Smith, a senior fellow at the
Washington-based Center for International Policy who has long argued
that the U.S. should lift its 48-year trade embargo on Cuba. "Suddenly,
when the Cubans say, 'You can't march,' then there's a story. Then the
press comes out."
Indeed, after years of obscurity, the women have become a cause celebre
among Cuban-American exiles in the United States. The move to quash
their protests has many in Washington wondering if Havana is trying to
scuttle relations that seemed on the mend just months ago.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said this month that Fidel and
Raul Castro could be creating a crisis because they don't want America
to drop the embargo, which she said gives them a convenient excuse for
their revolution's failures.
Ricardo Alarcon, head of Cuba's parliament, scoffed at the notion on Sunday.
"Mrs. Clinton is a very intelligent woman and I don't want to be rude
with her," Alarcon said. "If she really believes the continuation of the
embargo is in the benefit of our government, it's very simple for her to
ask Congress to lift the embargo."
Alarcon, the highest ranking Cuban official to respond to Clinton, made
his comments as he voted in nationwide municipal elections that the
government says are the most democratic in the world.
There are secret ballots in which Cubans can choose between more than
one candidate, and preliminary results announced Monday showed that
nearly 95 percent of eligible voters took part. The government says the
vote contradicts the Washington-driven image of Cuba as a single-party
"These elections reaffirm that our people will never surrender and will
never sell out," said a headline in the state-weekly newspaper
Trabajadores, or Workers, on Monday.
But few outside Cuba took notice of the vote. There was no debate on
policy and the results were never in doubt. While candidates did not
have to be members of the Communist Party, most were in good standing
with authorities and the outcome means little politically.
Even Fidel Castro made no comment on the election in a lengthy essay
published shortly after the polls closed that railed against American
military designs. The 83-year-old, who stepped down as president in
2008, voted in abstentia and did not appear publicly.
For the media, the real drama was elsewhere, in a shady park in an
upscale neighborhood of Havana, where the Ladies in White stood without
food or bathroom breaks through hour after hour of earsplitting harassment.
The group has demonstrated every Sunday since their husbands and sons
were arrested in a March 2003 crackdown. Their marches, down a leafy
boulevard called Quinta Avenida, used to draw little coverage and only a
smattering of curious onlookers. State security kept watch from afar but
rarely intervened. Usually, fewer than 10 protesters have shown up.
But the death of a jailed dissident hunger striker in February shined a
new spotlight on Cuba's human rights record. The women marched for seven
days in a row in different parts of the city in March. Cameras were
there to show them roughly bundled onto a bus at one of the events.
That prompted sympathy protests led by Cuban-American pop icon Gloria
Estefan in Miami and actor Andy Garcia in Los Angeles. Cuban officials
bristled, denouncing what they saw as a global campaign to discredit the
revolution. On April 11, officials informed the women the protests would
no longer be tolerated.
That afternoon, dozens of pro-government counter-protesters were waiting
outside Santa Rita de Casia Church, where the Damas celebrate Mass. When
the women tried to march, security officials put them on a bus and took
Similar conflicts have been repeated the next two weekends - with
counter-protesters hurling abuse at the women for hours before they were
put onto a bus. The counter-protests are not violent, though they are
On Sunday - the day of the municipal vote - the six Damas who turned up
moved to the shade of a huge ficus tree, its trunk as large as a car and
with vines hanging from its branches taking root in the soil below. They
stood there for seven hours as government supporters shuttled in and out
in shifts to shout at them.
This time, scores of foreign journalists were there to watch, even if
Cubans who happened past paid little attention, some playing baseball,
oblivious to the disturbance nearby.
Juana Gomez, who joined the Damas in sympathy but is not a relative of
one of the original 2003 political prisoners, told The Associated Press
the women would continue to march "come what may."
She said she thinks authorities picked a confrontation with the Damas to
sabotage any chance for improved relations with the United States.
"Better relations aren't at all convenient for them," she said. "What
they want is to be in the same fight as they've been in for 50 years."
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