Cuba detains Ladies in White ahead of the visit by Pope Benedict XVI
Cuban authorities detained on Sunday about 70 members of the dissident group Ladies in White, drawing fresh attention to human rights issues days ahead of a visit by Pope Bendict XVI.
Eighteen women, dressed in their customary white clothing, were rounded up and taken away in buses after they left their permitted route through Havana's Miramar neighborhood during their weekly Sunday march in the Cuban capital, according to witnesses.
The arrests are likely to bring into focus the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban regime, which is officially atheist but has recently had better relations with Christian groups.
One Cuba/Una Cuba Facebook campaign has been started by Cuban Americans in Florida, calling for the Pope to meet the country’s dissidents during his two-day visit, which begins March 26.
The Miami Herald notes that Pope John Paul II visit in 1998 was followed by concessions from the government including permission for television broadcast of Masses while Christmas Day became a national holiday.
However, Catholic authorities said last week a visit with dissidents was not on the pope's program.
Ladies in White member Magaly Norvis Otero Suarez said that 16 of the women were arrested Saturday evening when they attempted to stage a march in central Havana and another 36 were detained Sunday morning as they prepared to go to mass at Santa Rita Catholic Church and then stage their silent march along 5th Avenue, Miramar's main boulevard.
They had gathered at the home of their deceased leader Laura Pollan over the weekend to commemorate the anniversary of the arrest of 75 government opponents in March 2003 that gave rise to the organization, Otero said.
The Ladies in White, or Damas de Blanco in Spanish, were the wives and mothers of the 75, who received lengthy sentences but have all been freed, most as part of a 2010 agreement brokered by the Roman Catholic Church that resulted in the release of 130 political prisoners.
The group has continued its weekly marches, which are the only public protests allowed in Cuba, saying there are still more political prisoners to be freed.