By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Apr 22 (IPS) - The break-up of a demonstration by a small group of Cuban women demanding the release of their imprisoned dissident husbands came just a few days after a government warning that in Cuba there is no space for "subversion" or the dreams of "internal mercenaries."
"This is a bucket of cold water for those who believe in a gradual democratisation of our country," moderate dissident Manuel Cuesta told IPS, commenting on Monday’s incident, when female police officers broke up a sit-in by 10 members of a group known as the Women in White.
The women, who had gathered near government headquarters in Havana, were forced into a bus by the police and driven home.
Cuesta, spokesman for the Arco Progresista, a dissident coalition of small groups with social democratic tendencies, said he is "worried" because he sees the police removal of the protesters as an indication of a change in attitude from the stance seen since Raúl Castro took over as president from his ailing brother Fidel in February.
He said the authorities had been taking a more lenient stance with respect to the few street protests held by dissidents, but "the message sent out now is much stronger, because the government’s power was brought to bear on these women."
The Women in White, whose name comes from the white clothing they wear in their demonstrations, are the wives, mothers and other family members of 75 dissidents who were handed lengthy jail sentences in 2003 in summary trials, on charges of carrying out subversive activities under "instructions from a foreign power."
Of the original group, 55 are still in prison. The rest were granted conditional release for health reasons, including eight who have left the country and one, Miguel Valdés, who died in a Havana hospital after suffering two heart attacks.
Laura Pollán, the wife of Héctor Maseda, who is serving a 20-year sentence, told IPS that five relatives of the prisoners and five other supporters had gathered Monday in the Plaza de la Revolució to personally appeal to President Castro or Interior Minister Abelardo Colomé for the release of their loved ones.
"We refused to leave, and sat down and locked arms. But female police officers pulled us away and forced us into vehicles," said Pollán, who added that she was still sore from the shoving and pushing, but clarified that no one was hit.
She also confirmed that the demonstrators were driven home, even those who lived in the province of Matanzas, 87 km from Havana, and Villa Clara, 268 km away. "They have already called us, and they’re fine," she said.
The ruling Communist Party’s newspaper, Granma, stated in an article Tuesday that "female Interior Ministry forces evacuated the provocateurs and took them home, with the intention of preventing a confrontation with the public." In the past, Women in White demonstrators have been shouted at angrily by government supporters.
Granma referred to the protesters as "mercenary elements" who were staging "an insolent provocation" on the edge of the Plaza de la Revolución. The paper also linked the women to sectors of the right-wing Cuban exile community in the United States.
Pollán admitted that on Apr. 18 the women were meeting in her house when they received a phone call from Cuban-American Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who Granma accused of encouraging "actions by these tiny groups as a justification for receiving financing" from Washington.
"But I want to clarify again that no one gives us instructions; we are independent, and all we are calling for is the release of the political prisoners," said the Women in White spokeswoman, who also rejected allegations that she was "in the pay" of the United States.
"What we receive comes from Cubans in exile, as assistance to help support our prisoners," she said.
The Women in White held a similar protest in 2004 in the same spot near the Plaza de la Revolución, where key government buildings like the Council of State, Communist Party Central Committee and Interior Ministry are located.
On that occasion, the women were demanding emergency surgery for a slipped disc for Angel Moya, who is serving a 20-year term. The sit-in lasted around 40 hours, before the protesters were removed by force. Moya received the operation.
"Neither provocations nor mercenary lies based on methods ordered by their Yanqui masters will dent the steadfastness and the will of the present and future generations of Cubans," said Tuesday’s article in Granma.
An Apr. 16 editorial in the paper had stated that "there will be no room for subversion" in Cuba.
The editorial was apparently prompted by an Apr. 8 conference on change in Cuba held near Miami and hosted by Florida Senator Mel Martinez and other representatives of the Cuban exile community.
Granma reported that the participants in the day-long "Cuban Democracy Roundtable" conference, which was attended by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutiérrez, agreed that staunch support for dissidents is the way to foment democratic change in Cuba, and that the most important thing is for opponents on the island not to feel isolated and alone in their struggle. (END/2008)