Fewer obstacles in Cubans’ march for freedom
The ladies in white find less interference as they proclaim that ‘love for our (jailed) family members’ has triumphed By JEFF FRANKS, Reuters May 8, 2010 12:00 AM
Cuba’s dissident Ladies in White staged their weekly protest march without interference Sunday after the Cuban government dropped its attempted clampdown on the group following intervention by the Catholic church.
It was a rare victory for a Cuban opposition group and followed clumsy government efforts to shut down the women the previous two Sundays by bringing in government supporters to harass them for hours with chants and obscenities.
As they have for seven years, the white-clad women emerged from mass at the Santa Rita de Casias Catholic church and, with flowers in hand, marched silently in Havana’s upscale Miramar neighbourhood. There were no arrests.
A scattering of Cubans looked on curiously as the 12 women walked along, but there were no crowds of people waiting to surround and harass them.
The previous Sunday, a rough-looking group held the women at bay for seven hours, shouting in their faces and at times making sexually suggestive remarks and gestures.
The women have been marching since a 2003 government crackdown in which 75 dissidents, including husbands and sons of the Ladies in White, were imprisoned. Most are still jailed.
The marches have been the only known public protests permitted by authorities since the early 1960s.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, head of the Cuban Catholic church, told reporters he had asked the government not to repeat the “painful events” of the past two Sundays. In the middle of last week, officials told him to advise the ladies they could march as usual on Sunday, with some provisos.
“I can’t say this enters into a new flexibility. I can say … it’s very good that such a gesture is made,” said Ortega, standing in the church attended by the women.
He said it was normal for the mothers and wives of imprisoned men to seek their freedom. “They are people who in this sense deserve a respect, a special consideration,” said Ortega, who recently told a Catholic publication that Cubans are impatient for change.
Cuba views its small dissident community as “mercenaries” working for the United States and other enemies to topple the communist-led government.
The independent Cuban Human Rights Commission says the island has about 200 political prisoners, but in recent years has turned to short-term detentions instead of long prison sentences to keep them under control.
Island leaders have been criticized internationally for the February death of dissident hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo and its treatment of the Ladies in White, who were harassed when they staged a week of protests to mark the March anniversary of the 2003 crackdown.
The ladies’ March protests, widely covered by the international media, were followed by the government telling the women they must have a permit to make the Sunday marches. The women refused to seek the permits, which led to the recent confrontations.
Ladies in White leader Laura Pollan said the government’s decision to let them march was a “small victory,” which she attributed to “tenacity, perseverance, reason and, above all, love.”
“Here, love has triumphed – love for our family members and love for God,” she said.
The government has placed restrictions on who can march with the women and said that May will be a test month to see if they comply.
A defiant Pollan said they will march as they please.
“If they don’t want more marches, release our family members,” she said.