The Cuban government placed up to 20 women under house arrest for planning to attend Pope Francis’ Mass in Havana on Sunday, while at least two others were dragged away and arrested at the event for approaching the Pope while shouting the word “freedom.”
Twenty-two members of the Ladies in White dissident group–a mostly Catholic organization of mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives of political prisoners–were arrested at the home of the organization’s leader, Berta Soler, early Sunday morning. They were denied all outside communication, including the use of television, which prevented them from watching the Mass in their own homes. The arrests were intended to “clean the streets” of unsavory pro-democracy elements before the Pope delivered his Mass under the shadow of mass murderer Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.
At least two dissidents, Marta Beatriz Roque and Miriam Leiva, said they had been invited to the event personally by the papal ambassador to Havana, but were immediately arrested upon attempting to walk to the Plaza. Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, confirmed the invites, but told reporters he did not know why the dissidents had declined to attend.
With the Mass long over, local independent journalists like Yusnaby Pérez report that many of the landline phones belonging to detained Ladies in White remain disconnected to keep them from reaching out to reporters:
No puedo comunicarme con Berta Soler ni Marta Beatriz Roque. Los teléfonos de muchos opositores han sido cortados por el régimen
— Yusnaby Pérez (@Yusnaby) September 20, 2015
A number of reporters also claimed to have been banned from the event without reason:
At least two dissidents did reach Pope Francis, however, with dramatic video showing a man calling out to the Pope, receiving a blessing, and being forcibly removed from the crowd and arrested along with a second man:
The men have been identified as members of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU), another dissident group. Zaqueo Báez reached the Pope, with UNPACU head José Daniel Ferrer telling reporters that Báez said he “reached the Pope and told him the truth and shouted ‘freedom,'” a crime in communist Cuba. Fellow UNPACU members Ismael Boris Reñí and Aymara Nieto Muñoz were also at the event, along with one Lady in White who managed not to be arrested before the event, María Josefa Acón Sardiñas.
Báez is a serial offender on the communist island, having been arrested with more than 100 other dissidents during American Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to the island.
Photos of the men resisting arrest have spread rapidly on pro-democracy social media:
Francisco da la mano a Fidel y la espalda a los disidentes pic.twitter.com/6WlLXxHQLm
— The Catalan Analyst (@CatalanAnalyst) September 21, 2015
— Infobae América (@infobaeamerica) September 21, 2015
Galeria de Fotos + VIDEO Momento en que la policia Cubana detiene a disidentes cerca del papa” http://t.co/PVnu1iVBl5 pic.twitter.com/2AiirHTK9A — Reporte Confidencial (@RConfidencial) September 21, 2015
Pope Francis celebrated a mass attended by a number of prominent far-left personalities, including Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Raúl Castro himself. He later met with retired longtime despot Fidel Castro, in a meeting described as “informal and familiar,” and touched on topics such as climate change.
No reports indicate that Pope Francis addressed the rampant human rights violations of the Castro regime with either brother.
Cuba has persecuted Catholics for decades, though Raúl Castro has expanded that persecution in the face of the prominent position the Ladies in White have created for themselves on the international human rights state. The Ladies in White group attends Mass collectively every Sunday, where they are arrested collectively every Sunday. The Sunday before Pope Francis’ visit, more than 50 Ladies in White and UNPACU supporters were arrested as a warning to stay away from the Papal ceremony. “What I would tell the Pope is that political violence against people who want to participate or exercise their liberty in public assemblies must stop,” Berta Soler, the group’s leader, told reporters following the latest round of arrests.
Ladies in White members have been banned from at least one Catholic church on the island and are the victims of numerous humiliating acts of violence every week, ranging from tarring to beating to being exposed to urination.
Pope Francis has been asked his opinion on Cuban human rights violations. In July, he declined to give an opinion, stating, “There are some countries and also some European countries where you cannot make a sign of religion, for different reasons, and on other continents the same.”