‘Normalization’: More Than 300 Cuban Dissidents Arrested in Weekend Following Obama’s Visit

Members of dissident group "Ladies in White", wives of former political prisoners, are detained during their protest on March 20, 2016 in Havana.

The communist government of Cuba restored its iron-fisted control over pro-democracy activists last weekend, following mass arrests a week ago on the Sunday before President Barack Obama landed in Havana. An estimated 300 dissidents were beaten and arrested nationwide.

Cuban exile publication Capitol Hill Cubans estimates that 300 dissidents were arrested this past weekend, adding up over 100 arrests in Havana, 150 in eastern Guantánamo, and scattered reports of arrests throughout smaller population centers in the heart of the island. In Havana, 30 of those arrested are known to be Ladies in White, members of a group of dissidents comprised of the female relatives of political prisoners who stage silent protests every Sunday by attending Catholic Mass dressed in White. They are, without fail, arrested every Sunday, typically beaten, and released far from their homes by the end of the day.

Miami’s El Nuevo Herald cites dissidents on the group as confirming that more than 100 of their peers were arrested in Havana. “They ripped their clothes in the middle of the street, leaving many of them nude in public,” one witness recalled. Some were “beaten with washing machine belts and flag poles.” At least one Ladies in White member suffered a broken arm from being whipped with a washing machine belt.

Those arrested in the east of the country are believed to have been members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), an NGO that works to help dissidents find each other and organize pro-democracy events. UNPACU director José Daniel Ferrer estimates 138 members of his group were arrested. He writes at the organization’s page, however, that “more than a hundred and fifty” dissidents generally were arrested. The UNPACU arrests occurred on the Friday, March 25, two days before the Ladies in White arrests in Havana.

That Friday also saw the arrests of two more prominent dissidents: Claudio Fuentes and Danilo Maldonado, an artist known as “El Sexto,” to prevent them from appearing at a silent protest against the Rolling Stones’ one-night-only show in Cuba. Maldonado had been arrested and freed the Sunday before President Obama’s visit as part of the mass arrests against dissidents that day.”

“Suddenly, we saw from the balcony a stampede of ‘security’ agents that attacked Claudio Fuentes, who tried to enter the building. … We also heard of Danilo Maldonado’s arrest,” Gorki Águila, who organized the silent protest, told Spain’s Diario de Cuba. Fuentes has been freed, but Maldonado’s whereabouts remain unknown.

“The Castroist regime has increased repression, before, during and after [President Obama’s] visit, being frightened by the rising popular discontent and public protests,” UNPACU leader Ferrer writes: “Repression increases due to the growth of people discontent and pro-democracy activism. Neither the policy of Obama nor anyone else from outside Cuba can put an end to the repression of the dictatorship, with the possible exception of a military invasion and this is not something a decent person wants.”

The Castro regime made a similar mass arrest sweep on Sunday, March 20, shortly before Air Force One landed in Havana. As international media were in the city to cover President Obama’s arrival, video images of Ladies in White beaten and dragged by their ankles into buses to be taken to jail traveled the world. In that instance, it was estimated that more than 50 members of the group were arrested. Some, like Berta Soler, the Ladies in White leader, were released and allowed to meet with President Obama for a dissident roundtable on Tuesday.

Berta Soler was arrested once again this Sunday for participating in the weekly Sunday march through Havana.

During President Obama’s visit to the island, dictator Raúl Castro flatly denied the existence of political prisoners in Cuba. “What political prisoners? Give me a name or names, or when after this meeting is over you can give me a list of political prisoners, and if we have those political prisoners, they will be released before tonight ends,” he said during the first day of the President’s visit. Bombarded with copies of lists of known prisoners of conscience, Castro freed no one.


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