Cuba's Ladies in White march without incident in Havana, but report
detentions of others
By Franco Ordonez AND Juan O. Tamayo
HAVANA -- More than 30 Ladies in White marched in Havana on Sunday
without incident but watched by dozens of journalists in Cuba to cover
Pope Benedict XVI's visit, while another 25 were reported detained or
harassed in the capital and Santiago de Cuba.
The detentions were part of the government's efforts to "repress and
intimidate" peaceful dissidents on the eve of the pontiff's Monday
arrival, said a statement by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and
Police already have detained more than 70 dissidents and at least 100
beggars in Havana and Santiago to keep government critics away from
papal events and clean up the island's streets, the statement added.
Cuban officials would not comment on the accusations of the Ladies in
White about being detained and harassed, but they said the women were
taking advantage of the pontiff's visit to attract the attention of
international media. More than 70 Ladies in White were arrested on March
17 and March 18.
Standing under a tree outside Santa Rita church Sunday afternoon,
Mercedes Fresneda Castillo, who said she was held 48 hours last weekend
before being released, pointed to a scab on her right leg where she said
police kicked and dragged her.
"The repression is always tough, but it's been worse the last few weeks
because of the pope's visit," Fresneda said. "The government wants the
pope to see what they want, not the reality of the people."
Ladies in White leader Berta Soler nevertheless vowed Sunday that as
many members as possible will try to attend Benedict's mass Wednesday in
Havana "because no one can tell us who can attend a mass and be near God."
Soler said the group has yet to hear from the pope about its request for
a brief meeting to discuss human rights in Cuba.
"We just want one moment with the pope to tell him about the realities
of Cuba," Soler said.
More than 100 journalists covered her group's street march after
Sunday's Mass at the Santa Rita church, she added, welcoming the media
attention as "a good opportunity to inform the world about how we Cubans
live under this system."
She added that police detained or blocked seven members from reaching
the church and 18 were detained over the past few days in eastern
Santiago, the island's second largest city. About 35 Ladies in White,
founded by female relatives of political prisoners, participated in the
march and returned home without incident, Soler later told El Nuevo
Herald by telephone from Havana.
The marchers carried their traditional gladiolas as the foreign
journalists followed. At one point, a woman screamed pro-government
slogans and called the protesters' family members common criminals.
Sitting with a friend near a statue of Indian independence hero Mohandas
K. Ghandi, Jose Perez, 63, called the march "a show."
"I don't feel any repression," he said. "As long as you don't do
anything wrong, you don't have problems."
Becky Felicia was taken into custody by officials Sunday morning as she
left her downtown Havana home, according to her nephew.
Yuris Martinez Sanchez answered the door at 7 a.m. Three women and four
men, dressed in civilian clothes, told him to warn his aunt not to
Martinez said his aunt refused. She left the house three hours later.
"They were waiting," he said. "When she walked out the door, they
grabbed her and put her in a police car."
Most of the detentions last just long enough for police to block
dissidents from attending planned activities or warn them that they will
be held for longer periods if they try to attend the pope's events, said
Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz, head of the human rights commission.
The detentions of the beggars — "persons defenseless and absolutely
vulnerable" — amounted to a "repugnant violation of human rights by a
government more interested in its political image," the commission's
The Havana beggars were taken to a holding facility known as La Colonia
near the José Martí International airport, it added. They are expected
to be released once the pope leaves the island.
Dissidents also reported a large number of police highway checkpoints
and travel "black lists," to keep them away from Santiago and Havana, as
well as growing cuts in their cellular service — their best way of
Other dissidents alleged that opposition activist Jorge Cervantes García
State was beaten and may have suffered a broken leg during his arrest
Friday at his home in the town of Contramaestre near Santiago.
The Spain-based Web page Diario de Cuba reported police detained two of
its collaborating journalists, Alberto Méndez Castelló and Luis Felipe
Rojas. Méndez Castelló, detained on his way to Santiago, has been on
hunger strike since Thursday.
In the village of El Cobre near Santiago, where the Ladies in White
often attend Mass at Our Lady of Charity Church, they were absent from
the 8 a.m. Sunday service.
European journalists repeatedly snapped photos of one woman in white
garb, but she said after the mass that she was dressed that way because
she was celebrating her birthday.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Charity will close at noon Monday to prepare
for the pope's visit. He plans to spend the Monday night at a priests'
residence, which has been screened from view by netting similar to that
used to surround tennis courts, and then visit the hilltop shrine for
private prayer Tuesday morning.
Elsa Despaigne, an elderly woman who walks with a cane, said she would
take a bus Monday from the church to the pope's mass in Santiago. "I
will ask for good health for the entire world,'' she said.
Despaigne attended Pope John Paul II's mass in Santiago in 1998. "His
trip was a success in every way,'' she said. "This pope's trip will be,
Tamayo reported from Miami and Ordonez, a McClatchy News Service
correspondent, from Havana. Staff Writer Mimi Whitefield contributed to
this report from El Cobre.
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