A total of over 100 Cuban dissidents were arrested this weekend, with more than 90 being hauled away on a bus by Cuban authorities on Sunday as they marched through Havana wearing masks of President Barack Obama, demanding the White House pressure Cuba to respect human rights and political freedom.
It is believed that between 50-60 of those arrested are members of the Damas de Blanco (“Ladies in White”) dissident group, composed of mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives of political prisoners. The Damas de Blanco customarily attend Sunday Catholic Mass together in silence, then protest the government with a silent march through Havana (other local chapters do the same throughout the country). The Catholic Church in at least one of these chapters, Las Villas, has demanded the Ladies in White leave the church in order to please the Cuban government.
The protests this Sunday, however, had a somewhat different flavor. Not only did the Ladies in White protest Raúl Castro’s dictatorship, but also President Obama’s support of the communist regime by triggering a “normalization” process in which Castro will be allowed to do business with American companies, but no demands have been made that his regime conform to international human rights standards. Protesters took to the streets wearing masks of President Obama in protest.
— Sumarium (@sumariumcom) August 10, 2015
— Jason Ian Poblete (@JasonPoblete) August 10, 2015
Former political prisoner and husband of Ladies in White leader Berta Soler Ángel Moya told reporters the mask was a direct protest of the American president. “What is happening in Cuba is his fault, the Cuban government has been emboldened with negotiations… that’s why we wear this mask,” he explained. He was arrested shortly thereafter. Soler echoed his sentiments. The White House, she said, “should impose conditions on the Cuban government that prevent the violation of human rights.” “For us it is really very important that when Kerry arrives in Cuba… he meet with a representative of civil society,” she added. In addition to the arrests, independent Cuban journalist Yusnaby Pérez has published photos of women beaten by Cuban police forces during the protest. Sonia Garro, a member of the Ladies in White group, can be seen bleeding on her shoulder and chest, with deep scratches on her arms. Her whereabouts are currently unknown after being taken away by police.
Policía política golpea brutalmente a la opositora Sonia Garro, Ahora se encuentra detenida en paradero desconocido pic.twitter.com/tirjrXc97b
— Yusnaby Pérez (@Yusnaby) August 9, 2015
Pérez notes this is the seventeenth such Sunday that has culminated in the mass arrest of dozens of dissidents. The number of politically-motivated arbitrary detentions has skyrocketed this summer. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation– a group dedicated to cataloguing these arrests– reports that the government arbitrarily detained dissidents 624 times in July, the highest number since June 2014.
Babalú Blog, which chronicles the Cuban human rights struggle, notes that the Saturday arrests, while peaceful, resulted in the arrest of over 12 members of the pro-Democracy Emilia Project group. The Cuban government also artificially suppressed the number of high-profile dissidents at the Sunday protest by forcing some to remain in their homes, like 17-year former political prisoner Jorge Luis Garcia Perez “Antunez”, whose home was placed on lockdown to prevent him from joining the protesters in Havana.
Secretary of State John Kerry will arrive in Havana on August 14 for the official opening ceremony of the American embassy there. Kerry has called the embrace of the Cuban communist government a “historic and long-overdue step in the right direction.” The Havana ceremony follows a similar one in late July in which government officials raised the Cuban communist flag over Washington, D.C., at the government’s newly reopened embassy there. The Cuban government heralded the event in state media as “a great victory for our people” and cited communist youth leaders as calling the working together of both governments a joyous occasion, “so long as the ideal that we aspire to is not watered-down and we do not betray a single one of our principles.”