The Cuban government released the last of the Ladies in White yesterday after more than 70 members of the group were detained over three separate incidents one week ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit. The opposition group was founded by relatives of those detained during the Black Spring of 2003 and its members are known to walk through western Havana after mass each Sunday wearing all white to demand the release of political prisoners.
Nineteen of the group’s members were detained on Saturday evening during a march in central Havana. The following morning an additional 36 protesters were arrested, including the group’s leader, Bertha Soler, and her husband, who remains in custody. After mass, 22 more women and two men were arrested as they began marching toward the city center.
Many dissident groups see the Pope’s two-day visit as an opportunity to increase pressure on the Castro regime and draw attention to human rights abuses committed by the government. In a statement responding to the detention of the Ladies in White yesterday, the White House called on Cuban authorities to “abandon their tactics of intimidation and harassment to stifle peaceful dissent.” The Cuban government has not issued a statement of the matter.
The detentions over the weekend are indicative of the tension building between the government and dissident groups prior to the Pope’s arrival on March 26. Last Thursday, the Cuban police raided the Church of Charity in Central Havana and evicted 13 protesters who had been occupying the space since for two days.
On the eve of this 4th of July, I think about our servicemen and women whose lives are at risk defending U.S. interests and the cause of freedom around the world. I also think about Cuba, so close to the United States, where a despotic regime continues to misrule; and about the Ladies in White, a group of women—mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives of Cuban political prisoners, punished for desiring the same freedoms that Americans will celebrate this weekend.
Again, this Sunday the Ladies in White will walk together to mass, all dressed in white, calling attention to the plight of their loved ones and the lack of freedom in Cuba. The women have been harassed, spat upon and insulted by mobs organized by the regime. Their mistreatment, detention and abuse by Cuban police has earned the condemnation of world leaders, including the First Lady of France, former Czech President Vaclav Havel and President Barack Obama.