The government of Cuba began 2017 with the mass arrest of dissident leaders, including Ladies in White head Berta Soler, to prevent groups from attending New Year’s Day Catholic Mass.
January 1 is a holiday in communist Cuba, as it marks the day in which Fidel Castro took over the island nation in 1959 following years of violent attacks on the government of Fulgencio Batista. This New Year’s Day marks the first since the success of the Revolution without Fidel Castro present, who Communist Party agents claimed died in late November.
The Cuban independent news outlet Cubanet reports that Soler and her husband, former political prisoner and current activist Ángel Moya, were detained for several hours on Sunday to prevent them from attending Mass or organizing any protests against the scheduled events to celebrate Fidel Castro’s life.
Moya had tweeted earlier in the day that police had apparently placed his and Soler’s home under heavy surveillance early in the day to prevent them from leaving. They were arrested for trying to leave their homes, according to fellow dissident Antonio G. Rodiles.
After being liberated several hours later, Soler told the Spain-based Diario de Cuba that the Ladies in White group had planned to attend a New Year’s Day “Mass for peace” before being arrested, and that she was not alone in being prevented from leaving her home.
“For the past 13 years the Ladies in White go, or try to go, to the first Mass of the year,” she explained. “In 2016 the Cuban government made sure to reduce or prevent us from being present in church … and this January 1 the same things happened.”
The group has yet to confirm the number of dissidents detained or placed under house arrest during the January 1 festivities, though it appears the government spared no potential protester in their repression. Soler confirmed that among those detained was a 79-year-old woman, Margarita Barvena.
The arrests occurred before the Communist Party staged its annual parade to celebrate the Revolution, this time tinged with mourning for dictator Fidel Castro. The parades featured “the glorious Caravan of Liberty,” a reenactment of Castro’s return to Havana following Batista’s departure in 1959. Cuban propaganda publication Granma cites “youth leaders” stating that “today’s youth remain loyal heirs to the patriotic traditions [and will] defend the Revolution at the cost of any sacrifice.”
There have yet to be reports of similar violence to that occurring on the week before Christmas, when Soler reported that at least one Ladies in White member was hurled to the ground and beaten, losing consciousness. The Ladies in White are often the target of weekly arrests, as their main act of protest is to wear white and march to church on Sundays to attend Mass in silence, holding the images of their loved ones. The group is comprised of the mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives of Cuba’s prisoners of conscience. Soler joined the group while Moya was still serving a prison sentence for his pro-democracy activism, arrested during what is now known as the Black Spring of 2003.
While arbitrary temporary detentions of political dissidents have become far more common under dictator Raúl Castro than maintaining political prisoners full time, the Cuban government still holds prisoners of conscience. The Miami-based Martí news outlet estimates that around one hundred political prisoners spent New Year’s Eve behind bars. Among the most recent to be arrested for the long term is artist Danilo Maldonado Machado, known as “El Sexto,” whom police apprehended in November for publicly celebrating the death of Fidel Castro in Havana.
Maldonado remains in prison without charge. His mother, María Victoria Machado, said her son has been beaten in prison to the point of having an induced asthma attack. She also stated he has been denied medical care. Furthermore, she said Maldonado has accused guards of lacing his food with sedatives to keep him asleep after he spent a day shouting, “Down with Castro” from his prison cell.
Speaking to Martí Noticias this week, Machado said Maldonado, now in a maximum security prison, is not alone in being targeted for repression. “Our family is being persecuted,” she alleged, asserting that Maldonado’s sister was threatened with prison after signs began surfacing in Havana demanding his liberation.
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), an NGO that tracks politically motivated arrests on the island, predicted that Cuban officials will have committed more than 10,000 such arrests by the end of 2016. They have yet to release the arrest totals for December.