Hours before President Barack Obama landed in Havana to meet with high-ranking members of the island’s repressive communist regime, more than 50 pro-democracy dissidents were beaten and arrested, shoved into buses to be shipped into the nation’s jails to prevent them from disturbing official activities.
At least 50 of those arrested are members of the Ladies in White, a mostly-Catholic dissident group comprised of the wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters of prisoners of conscience. The Ladies in White members joined a larger group of anti-communist dissidents in Havana following their weekly attendance at Mass. Service this Sunday is especially important to Catholics as they celebrate Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.
“It was brutal, there are people with fractures and contusions,” Antonio Rodiles, leader of the dissident group Estado de SATS, told the Spain-based Diario de Cuba. “They hit us with everything.” The newspaper notes that Rodiles spoke to them via telephone, and the chaos of mass arrests happening around him threatened to drown out his own voice on the phone. Rodiles was subsequently arrested.
In addition to the 50 members of the Ladies in White and Antonio Rodiles, Danilo Maldonado, an artist known as “El Sexto,” was arrested in the fray.
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Maldonado was recently released from prison after serving a ten-month sentence for painting the names “Fidel” and “Raúl” on the backs of two pigs for an Animal Farm-themed art project.
The protesters all carried signs and chanted slogans directed at President Obama, calling for him to reconsider his friendly stance towards dictator Raúl Castro. The Ladies in White marched holding a sign reading “Obama, Nothing Has Changed Here.” Another group of dissidents held a sign reading “Obama, traveling to Cuba is not fun. No more violations of human rights.”
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While Sunday’s arrests yielded much more dramatic images due to the unusually high number of media representatives on the island for President Obama’s visit, there is evidence that the communist government has been working all week to keep the nation’s most vocal opponents of communism silent. On Saturday, a man named Ciro Alexis Casanova Pérez was arrested for placing a sign on his window reading “Neither Obama nor Castro, Freedom for Cuba.” He was taken to the hospital after his arrest for severe body aches, a sign he was beaten by police during his arrest.
Pérez was among more than 200 arrested yesterday, according to Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) leader José Daniel Ferrer, who attested to the arrest of 209 members of his group in Oriente, the eastern end of Cuba. In contrast, the Cuban government arrested about 250 dissidents throughout the entirety of Pope Francis’ visit in September.
In addition to those taken to jail, at least one is being held under house arrest without charge. The man: Zaqueo Báez, who made international headlines in September for daring to approach Pope Francis’ vehicle in Havana and say the word “freedom” within earshot of the pontiff. Báez was beaten severely in front of the pope and taken to prison, facing criminal charges for disturbing the peace. Pope Francis later denied any knowledge of the incident despite his proximity to it.
The Cuban dissident community has loudly opposed President Obama’s visit, arguing that his presence on the island would embolden the Cuban government to act more violently against pro-democracy activists. “These sorts of visits bring a lot of collateral damage,” dissident Marta Beatriz Roque said in February.
Studies of Castro regime behavior following President Obama’s announcement in December 2017 that he would be establishing diplomatic ties with the Castro dictatorship show that Havana has become more oppressive and violent against those who demand to live in a democratic society. “There has been no substantial improvement in regard to human rights and individual freedoms on the island… [The Cuban government] has adapted its repressive methods in order to make them invisible to the scrutinizing, judgmental eyes of the international community, but it has not reduced the level of pressure or control over the opposition,” a report by the Czech NGO People in Need concluded in December.