24 members of the Cuban Ladies in White dissident group have finally been freed after their arrest to prevent them from attending Pope Francis’s Mass in Havana on Sunday. The women claim to have been beaten, “dragged by the hair,” and subject to verbal obscenities.
In a video filmed at the home of Ladies in White organization head Berta Soler, Soler and the 23 women arrested with her provide the details of what occurred to them for expressing their wish to attend Pope Francis’s Mass at the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana. 23 of the 24, they explain, were put on a large bus and taken to a secure facility by Cuban secret police. Soler was separated from the group and subject to more abuse.
“A bus came at took us all away,” one woman explains, “they took us like they always do: pushing us, beating us.” Soler notes that they were intercepted at her home at 5 AM, where they had congregated to walk over to the Plaza for Mass. Soler notes that she tried to get on the bus, fearing being separated from the group, “but they prevented me, shouting ‘keep her out!'”
“They grabbed me by the hair, by the neck, and shoved my violently into a car,” Soler recalls. “A man in the passenger seat grabbed my hands and started squeezing and I told him “Stop! Stop, men don’t do this. Don’t you know you came from a woman’s womb?'” She notes he replied “I do this because I am a man, and I have a you-know-what this big.”
Soler’s story echoes reports of public behavior towards the Ladies in White by communist agents, including shouting vulgarities at the women, men exposing themselves and urinating in front of them, and being insulted as “prostitutes.” The Ladies in White are a collection of women whose husbands, fathers, sons, cousins, and siblings are prisoners of conscience.
The other women were kept in another facility, they note, where they were forbidden from eating or using the bathroom. The agents allowed them to watch the Pope’s Mass on television, but “we didn’t want to– we wanted to see it in person.” The ladies say they sat on the floor with their backs to the television for the duration of the Mass.
“We have heard from other people that the Holy Father has not called for an end to police violence, the end to political prisoners, abuse, the way John Paul II did,” Soler notes. “We know the Holy Father isn’t a liberator, but we need a liberator… he won’t bring change, but he was involved in the new closeness between the Castro regime and the United States.”
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said on Monday that a number of dissidents, including a number of Ladies in White, were invited to meet with Vatican officials, though he noted he “did not know” why they did not attend the meeting. Pope Francis himself told reporters that he did not know that any dissidents had been detained during his visit. “I have no news regarding detentions,” he said on his flight to Washington, D.C., and added that he “could not say” whether he would want to meet with Cuban dissidents. At least one dissident, Zaqueo Báez, was arrested in front of the Pope after yelling “freedom!” and receiving a blessing from the Pontiff.
While in Cuba, Pope Francis urged Cubans to seek the “revolution of tenderness” and be open to change. What kind of change was never made clear. Cubans seeking freedom and Cuban exiles abroad have expressed disappointment in the visit, in which the Pope neither met with nor mentioned political prisoners and dissidents.
“Francis was more interested in speaking to oppressors than the oppressed,” Cuban journalist Yusnaby Pérez lamented, “with the same oppressors that banned religion for 20 years.” Father Alberto Cutié, a prominent Miami clergyman, echoed this sentiment in a column in El Nuevo Herald: “I do not understand, nor do I think I can even begin to understand, why a man of God can meet with oppressors, but not with the oppressed; why religious institutions have forgotten that Christianity was born of the martyrs, not from those who remained silent before injustice.”
Pope Francis has arrived in Washington and delivered his first remarks, in which he lauded America’s freedom of religion, praised American Catholics for being “committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive,” and called for further action on climate change.