Cuba: Police Arrests over 100 Dissidents Attempting to Venerate Virgin Mary

A replica statue of the 400-year-old "La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre" is on display in
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Police arrested over 100 pro-democracy dissidents, dozens of which remain missing at press time, in Cuba on Sunday both in anticipation of and to shut down a protest event underway to observe the feast day of the patron saint of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity (La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre).

The Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) and the Cuba Decide election movement organized a march on Sunday to venerate the Virgin Mary and demand that the communist Castro regime respect the basic human rights of its people. March organizers said the event would especially express solidarity with the Ladies in White, a dissident organization whose sole act of protest is to attend Catholic Mass on Sundays with the images of political prisoners so that they are not forgotten.

Some began referring to the event as the “Sunflower March” in honor of the flower traditionally offered to Our Lady of Charity on her feast day. Activists on the island reported that Cuban communist police began banning the sale of sunflowers over the weekend in response to the growing use of the flower as a symbol of freedom. Sunflowers are also used to venerate Ochun, the Yoruba god to which Our Lady of Charity is syncretized in Cuba’s santería religion, as yellow is the goddess’s signature color.

The Castro regime regularly employs its police, undercover officers, and makeshift mobs to arrest, beat, intimidate, and otherwise abuse the Ladies in White.

Dissidents accused police forces of raiding their homes and looting them of items that have nothing to do with their protests, including hard-to-find basics on the island such as milk and cooking oil. Some who escaped prosecution suffered heavy fines for arbitrary crimes such as “harm to the environment,” or simply supporting an unlawful protest.

Cuban Prisoners Defenders, an organization that works with UNPACU to document and denounce the imprisonment of peaceful pro-democracy dissidents, listed 98 people arrested in Cuba since Friday out of fear that they may possibly join the march on Sunday. The group noted that these were only the arrested they could confirm with certainty, emphasizing that the real arrest count easily totals over 100 people now behind bars in the last three days.

“After besieging dozens of homes of activists belonging to the pacific democratic opposition in Cuba, the island’s government, using the State Security forces and special troops, has raided several of these homes, stolen from them, and detained many more than one hundred activists, primarily to prevent [the occurring of] a march organized nationwide,” Cuban Prisoners Defenders explained in a press release Monday.

“Arrests every September 8 have become, unfortunately, as ‘traditional’ for human rights activists as the celebration of the beloved Cachita [Our Lady of Charity], although the call to march this year in parks and other public places has unleashed a substantially larger wave of violence,” the NGO noted.

The Cuban Prisoners Defenders list of detentions does not include forced house arrests in which the outside of known dissidents’ homes are “militarized” and the dissidents are threatened with physical violence if they walk out of their houses. In neither of these cases are the individuals provided with any legal justification for their apprehension.
“More arrests since early morning,” Ferrer, the head of UNPACU, wrote on Twitter early Sunday morning. “As of yesterday, 30 activists have disappeared. Their location is unknown. The families do not know their whereabouts. There will be more arrests as 10 a.m. approaches. At that hour we will march from many places!!!”

UNPACU’s headquarters are in Santiago de Cuba, on the far east of the island hundreds of miles from Havana, where organization leader José Daniel Ferrer lives. Ferrer was one of the first arrested on Sunday, local sources reported. Military also surrounded the UNPACU headquarters on numerous occasions. The most violent occurred on Sunday morning in anticipation of the march for Virgin Mary and culminated in Ferrer’s arrest and the detention of about a dozen others organized to protest. Eyewitnesses told Diario de Cuba that police beat Ferrer and his 16-year-old son, who often partakes in democracy activities with UNPACU, before taking them away.

The outlet noted that Cuba’s state wireless provider appeared to shut off phone service to most of the UNPACU contacts the newspaper has on the island for the weekend.

Prior to his arrest, Ferrer met with America’s Charge d’Affairs Mara Tekach, who currently runs the U.S. embassy in Havana. The embassy responded to his arrest by posting a message to Ferrer from Tekach: “The United States supports you and the people of Cuba in their struggle for freedom. We demand freedom for those detained. The Cuban people deserve more.”

Cubans and Cuban-Americans in the United States also responded to UNPACU’s call by organizing events in Florida to both honor the Virgin Mary and support Cuban dissidents on the island.

“The Cuban problem does not belong to the elderly in the exile community, the Cuban problem belongs to all of us. We young people must also sacrifice for Cuba, yell out ‘Free Cuba,’ … so that those suffering all the oppression on the island can be heard and the world can know that Cuba needs freedom,” the Pichy Boys, a comedy duo with a weekly show on Miami television, said on Sunday, attending a sunflower event in their hometown. The duo have launched a campaign to pressure Cuban artists who make money in the United States to defend the human rights of their people.

UNPACU and the Cuba Decide group, which is attempting to use constitutional means to force the Castro regime to offer its people free and fair elections, initially announced the march to express solidarity with “journalists and independent artists, defenders of religious liberty and LGBTI activists suffering persecution, and all peaceful people and organizations who promote respect for human rights and the change to a democratic system in Cuba.”

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