Police bar Cuba's 'Ladies in White' from marching
By WILL WEISSERT
Associated Press Writer
HAVANA -- Police broke up a weekly march by wives and mothers of
imprisoned Cuban opposition leaders Sunday, forcing them onto a bus and
driving them home as a pro-government crowd screamed insults.
Uniformed police and plainclothes security agents blocked a sidewalk
along Havana's Fifth Avenue, stopping five members of the "Damas de
Blanco," or "Ladies in White," from following their traditional march
route, said Bertha Soler, one of the group's leaders.
"There was a mob of government people shouting things," Soler said when
reached by phone later at the home of Laura Pollan, who co-founded the
group. Soler's husband, Angel Moya, is in jail for dissident activities.
The "Ladies in White" traditionally attend Sunday Mass at Santa Rica
Church in the upscale Miramar neighborhood, then march silently down the
swank boulevard to demand the release of their relatives - top political
activists, community organizers and independent journalists. They were
rounded up during a government crackdown on dissent in 2003 and
sentenced to lengthy prison terms for allegedly conspiring with
Washington to topple Cuba's communist system.
The women dress all in white, carry pink gladiolas and, after a few
blocks, stop to chant "Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!"
They have marched every Sunday for years and are usually allowed to do
so without incident. Pollan said a state security official visited her
home Sunday morning to warn the group not to demonstrate, saying they
did not have government permission.
"It's every woman's right to decide if she will march or not," Pollan said.
She said the group would demonstrate as usual next Sunday unless the
government produced a document stating that they are not allowed to do so.
"I don't understand why we have to ask permission to march," Soler said.
The Cuban government had no immediate comment.
The mass arrests of dissidents began March 18, 2003, when the world's
attention was focused on the start of the war in Iraq. All of those
arrested deny the charges against them.
Of the 75 imprisoned, 53 remain behind bars, with the rest either
paroled for health reasons, freed into forced exile in Spain or released
after completing their sentences.
The scene Sunday was reminiscent of a march last month that, after
several peaceful protests to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the
prisoners' detention, degenerated into a shouting match between "Ladies
in White" members and government supporters. The confrontation ended
with authorities again forcing the women onto buses and driving them home.
That sparked an outcry in the United States and prompted sympathy
marches in Miami and Los Angeles.
Cuba's human rights situation has been a cause of renewed international
tension since the Feb. 23 death of dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo after
a long hunger strike in jail. The case was decried by the U.S.
government as well as European leaders.
It also prompted another dissident, Guillermo Farinas, to refuse food
and water for weeks. Farinas remains alive thanks to periodic
intravenous feedings at a hospital near his home in central Cuba.
The communist government says the dissidents are part of an
international campaign to defame Cuba fueled by foreign news media and
the U.S., saying it will not to buckle to what it calls international
"blackmail." It brands all opposition activists as common criminals and
lackeys of Washington and says every country should have the right to
jail those it deems traitors.