HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban government supporters harassed and shouted at members of the opposition group “Ladies in White” on Tuesday in Havana as the women marched in protest against the 2003 imprisonment of 75 dissidents.
The women, numbering about two dozen and dressed in white, had to be protected by state security agents after they stopped and yelled “Freedom, Freedom!” in front of the headquarters of the Cuban state journalists union.
The dissidents were marching for the second day in a protest to commemorate the 2003 “Black Spring” crackdown by the government against opponents.
About 150 men and women began walking alongside and shouting them down in what is known in Cuba as an “act of repudiation,” usually directed against government opponents.
“Viva Fidel! Viva Raul! The street belongs to the Revolution!” the government supporters shouted, referring to the 1959 Revolution led by Fidel Castro which subsequently installed a communist system in Cuba.
The women, who are wives and mothers of the Black Spring prisoners, were escorted by state security agents, who formed a protective cordon, to the Central Havana home of Ladies in White leader Laura Pollan.
Tuesday’s demonstration was the second of seven consecutive marches planned by the women’s group to mark the seventh anniversary of the Black Spring crackdown that began March 18, 2003 and drew widespread condemnation of Cuba.
The anniversary comes at a time when Cuba’s human rights record is under fire for the February 23 death of dissident hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo and for its handling of an ongoing hunger strike by dissident Guillermo Farinas in the central city of Santa Clara.
Farinas, who launched his strike three weeks ago to back demands for the release of 26 ailing political prisoners, has been in a hospital receiving fluids intravenously since he collapsed on Thursday.
A third hunger strike is underway by former political prisoner Orlando Fundora, who began eight days ago and is now in a hospital, his family said on Tuesday.
The Ladies in White staged their first march on Monday without incident. But Pollan said she had been warned by the government not to march to “sacred places” that included the state journalists’ center.
In December, the women were jostled and jeered by government supporters when they marched to mark International Human Rights Day.
Of the 75 people imprisoned in 2003, 52 remain behind bars.
Alejandrina Garcia, wife of prisoner Diosdado Gonzalez Marrero, who is serving a 20-year sentence, said Tuesday’s incident was not unexpected.
“What happened today is the same as always — government mobs repudiated us with government slogans, but we continued shouting ‘Freedom’ and “Zapata lives,” she told Reuters.
She said the Ladies in White would march again on Wednesday as planned, with the intention of visiting Fundora to encourage him to end his hunger strike.
A man whom Garcia identified as former political prisoner Hugo Damian Prieto was detained by security agents following a brief fracas with government supporters outside Pollan’s home.
Zapata’s death has become a rallying point for Cuba’s small dissident community and drawn international attention to their cause. The United States and Europe have condemned communist-led Cuba over the hunger strikes and called for the release of its estimated 200 political prisoners.
Cuba’s government, which views dissidents as mercenaries working for the United States and other enemies, has described Zapata and Farinas as common criminals. It has vowed to resist international pressure over the dissidents.
Editing by Jeff Franks, Pascal Fletcher and Eric Walsh