Over thirty members of the Ladies in White, a peaceful Catholic dissident group in Cuba, were violently arrested over the weekend for attempting to attend Sunday Mass, including leader Berta Soler.
The Cuban government recently banned Soler from leaving the country after the White House invited her to attend President Donald Trump’s speech announcing the repeal of Obama-era concessions to the communist Castro regime. She was arrested eight times during President Obama’s short visit to the island in March 2016.
This weekend, the group had planned to attend the weekly Mass at their local Havana church but, according to a Diario de Cuba note denouncing the arrests, most were arrested on their way out of their homes. In Soler’s case, according to Lady in White Daisy Artiles, five uniformed Cuban police officers apprehended her while leaving the house “holding a sign demanding freedom for political prisoners.”
“They took her sign away violently and dragged her into a car,” Artiles said. “Then a mob began to yell obscenities at us, calling us ‘counterrevolutionaries,’ ‘maggots,’ and shouting ‘this street belongs to Fidel.'” “Maggot” is a slur communists use for Cuban exiles.
This mob activity against peaceful pro-democracy dissidents is state-mandated and so common that it has an official name in Cuba: actos de repudio, or “acts of rejection.” Actos de repudio may include beatings, burnings of international human rights documents, stoning, and tarring of dissidents, among other violent acts.
Diario de Cuba notes that reports from the island suggest that at least fifteen Ladies in White in Havana did not get as far as Soler, being arrested in their homes in Havana. Another fourteen women were arrested throughout the country in Guantánamo, Bayamo, and eastern Santiago de Cuba.
The arrests follow the publication of a petition on behalf of the Ladies in White group requesting that Pope Francis, who has a working relationship with dictator Raúl Castro and has visited the island, to intervene on their behalf to allow them to attend Mass. They note that they have never interrupted a Mass nor has any Catholic clergymen complained that their presence was disruptive to a service, but that they have for several weeks been unable to attend Mass at the Santa Rita church they call their spiritual home in Havana.
The Ladies in White are a group of mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives of political prisoners. The group was founded following the “Black Spring” of 2003, when the Castro regime arrested dozens of journalists and anti-communist activists to prevent them spreading pro-freedom sentiments. Some of these political prisoners have been freed and now form part of the greater Ladies in White community.
The Ladies in White protest the government in the same way every Sunday, by dressing in white and silently carrying gladiolas and a photo of their imprisoned loved ones from their homes to Santa Rita church, where they attend Mass. The group has only missed two Sundays since 2003 for the government’s mandatory mourning period for late dictator Fidel Castro.
The Cuban government regularly uses violence and actos de repudio to attempt to silence the group. Government violence against the Ladies in White has grown worse since President Obama announced concessions to the Castro regime in late 2014, leading to protests against Obama himself. In one incident in 2015, ninety Ladies in White and supporters were arrested wearing Obama masks protesting his policies towards Cuba.
The Ladies in White’s opposition to President Obama made his visit to Cuba particularly taxing for them. Berta Soler, their leader, was arrested eight times during his visit.
Raúl Castro’s dictatorship has become increasingly repressive against religious Cubans since the policies the Ladies in White protested took effect. Among them is the unaffiliated dissident Daniel Llorente, who was arrested on May 1–International Workers’ Day–for interrupting the government’s Marxist rally by waving an American flag. Llorente was beaten publicly and whisked away to a mental institution for, according to his son, “believing in God.”
This week, Llorente sent a letter to the Trump administration through his son requesting political asylum in “the world’s greatest defender of human rights, hope, liberty, justice, brotherhood, and the pursuit of happiness, the United States.” Llorente has begun a hunger strike demanding his release, noting that there is no medical evidence that he is suffering from mental illness and instead is being kept in a mental hospital to prevent international human rights organizations from being able to formally brand him a prisoner of conscience.
The hospital in question, known by Cubans as “Mazorra,” is known for using “electroshock therapy” on patients that has been widely rejected by international mental health experts.