December 10, 2009 / 8:44 PM / 10 years ago

Cuban dissidents mark rights day with protests

HAVANA (Reuters) - Hundreds of government supporters drowned out two small opposition protests in Cuba’s capital on Thursday, chanting and jeering at the dissidents as they marched to mark International Human Rights Day.

Female relatives of imprisoned Cuban dissidents (dressed in white), known as the "Ladies in White," are followed by government supporters during a march in Havana December 10, 2009. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa

About 30 female relatives of political prisoners walked silently through the ramshackle Havana streets carrying flowers and Cuban flags before being surrounded and jostled by some 250 people shouting “Traitors” and “The street belongs to Fidel.”

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, 83, remains a powerful force on the communist-ruled island nearly two years after handing the presidency to his younger brother Raul, 78, due to poor health.

“How can it be possible that they won’t let us walk in the streets on this day?” said Melba Santana Ariz, whose husband has been held on the island as a political prisoner since 2003. “There are no human rights here.”

At the same time, several hundred government supporters stopped about 10 dissidents from marching in a park in the leafy Vedado district.

Protests by government opponents, who Cuba views as mercenaries working on behalf of its arch rival Washington, are rare in Cuba and are usually broken up by members of the Communist Party and neighborhood groups.

Cuban officials cite free education and health services as evidence of respect for human rights, but the issue strains Cuba’s diplomatic ties and the Cuban Human Rights Commission says some 200 political prisoners are held on the island.

“The Cuban government, far from a concrete and practical program to improve the unfavorable human rights situation that has existed in the country for decades, is turning to political repression,” said Elizardo Sanchez of the human rights commission, which is tolerated despite being illegal.

Sanchez said at least two people were arrested at their homes before leaving for the protest in the park in Vedado, where men with short hair and walkie-talkies grabbed hold of several protesters and forced two into nearby cars.

A third demonstrator was carried off by his arms and feet and a British diplomat who had gone to watch the planned march was hustled into his car and forced to leave.

The women relatives of political prisoners, who call themselves the “Ladies in White,” were allowed to finish their march despite a few minor tussles along the route through Havana’s crumbling historic center.

“These women are counter-revolutionaries,” said retired economist Erlinda Gomez, 68. “They’re trying to harm things with arguments that just aren’t true.”

Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; editing by Todd Eastham

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