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Despite Obama visit, global spotlight, Havana cracks down on dissidents

Despite Obama visit, global spotlight, Havana cracks down on dissidents

Dozens of protestors were detained in Cuba
Critics accuse Obama of ignoring the island’s human-rights record
Short-term arrests and detentions are common tactics

BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
mwhitefield@miamiherald.com

As they have for 46 straight Sundays, the dissident Damas de Blanco
(Ladies in White) marched quietly along the Cuban capital’s Fifth Avenue
— this time with fronds in their hands to mark Palm Sunday.

Their plea was the same as always: respect for human rights and
universal amnesty for all political prisoners. But the timing of their
march — just hours before President Barack Obama’s plane touched down at
Jose Martí International Airport — gave their protest a different context.

And initially, it seemed as if perhaps the glare of the world media —
journalists outnumbered protesters — might keep them safe from the usual
routine of arrests and short-term detention.

It was not to be.

After the Ladies in White ended their demonstration in Gandhi Park with
chants of “Libertad, Libertad, Libertad!” they decided to march another
two blocks to the intersection of Third Avenue and 26th Street in the
posh neighborhood of Miramar. There, pro-government crowds waving tiny
Cuban flags and toting placards in support for Raúl and Fidel Castro
awaited them.

As they approached the intersection, the Ladies and members of the
#Todosmarchamos (We all march) campaign tossed fliers and scraps of
paper advertising their cause high in the air. As the white paper rained
down, the Ladies went limp and lay down in the street.

State security quickly encircled the women and then hustled them into
three waiting buses labeled “Operations.” That’s when the pushing and
shoving began, with the protesters shouting “Asesinos! Asesinos!” —
murderers — as they were wrestled into the bus.

As the last of the Ladies in White was removed from the street,
apparently organized pro-government Cubans began removing the fliers and
paper scraps and putting them in black plastic bags.

This battle for the streets is a well-practiced ballet that occurs week
after week. The government says it is protecting the Ladies from the
government supporters. The dissidents say they are being repressed and
at times violently beaten.

That it happened just hours before Obama’s arrival — and at a time that
he’s on the defensive about ignoring the island’s human-rights record —
underscores Havana’s hard line against domestic opposition.

Obama will be meeting with dissidents on Tuesday, including some
involved in Sunday’s altercations.

So far this year, human rights monitor say the number of politically
motivated detentions is increasing. Dissidents also claim that sometimes
state security keeps them prisoners in their own homes, preventing them
from attending rallies and other events.

“The regime wouldn’t permit the press to give testimony to this,” said
Berta Soler, president of the group, who raked the Cuban government
repressing its people. Many members of the Ladies in White couldn’t
attend the march and rally, she said, because the government wouldn’t
let them.

Antonio Rodiles, one of the founders of the Forum for Rights and
Liberty, said the only reason he was able to make it to the rally at
Gandhi Park was that a group of foreign journalists had accompanied him..

Though he doesn’t think the Obama trip is a good idea, now that the
president is here, Rodiles said, “We want to see a clear message about
repression in Cuba from President Obama. What we need is freedom for our
country, what we need is freedom for our people.”

Otherwise, he said, the Cuban government will believe it can continue
repressive activities forever.

Both Soler and Rodiles have said they have been invited to meet with
Obama but hadn’t decided if they would attend.

José Daniel Ferrer, general coordinator of the dissident group Unión
Patriótica de Cuba, however, said he would be taking part. Ferrer also
said that Manuel Cuesta Morúa, leader of Arco Progresista, a social
democratic party; Convivencia magazine director Dagoberto Valdés;
blogger Yoani Sánchez, and activist Guillermo Fariñas had been invited.

Many of the dissidents said the United States should have imposed
conditions on Cuba before Obama came to the island.

The president told reporters last month that it would be “fun” to visit
Cuba.

“There is no fun in this game,” said Claudio Fuentes, who often makes
videos to debrief and record the bruises of dissidents after marches.
“We need to see a condemning speech from Obama.”

Although the president says he wants to speak directly to the Cuban
people as well as the Cuban diaspora, a speech of condemnation is unlikely.

“All the president’s visit is doing is legitimizing the government of
Raúl Castro,” said Yamile Garro Alfonso, who said she has been marching
nearly four years with the Ladies in White. “We have the right to elect
a president in this country with what we’ve suffered for our country.”

Garro said she joined the Ladies in White when her sister Sonia Garro
Alfonso was taken prisoner for her human rights activities. Her sister
was released as part of a group of 53 Cuban prisoners freed shortly
after the rapprochement with the United States was announced on Dec. 17,
2014.

The Ladies in White generally attend mass at a Miramar church before
their march. But not everyone who attended the mass at Santa Rita’s on
Palm Sunday was opposed to the president’s visit.

As Vivian Treneard left the Mass with a palm frond in her hand, she got
into a screaming match with Rodiles.

“Look, I love my country,” she shouted at him. “I was able to study,
thanks to the Cuban revolution.”

After she and Rodiles heatedly debated their takes on Cuban reality,
Treneard, who works in the tourism industry, said more calmly,
“President Obama is going to come to see Cuban reality. Although there
are problems here, I support the revolution, Raúl and all of them.”

Source: Despite Obama visit, global spotlight, Havana cracks down on
dissidents | Miami Herald –
www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article67267327.html

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