By WILL WEISSERT | Associated Press Writer
Cuban police rounded up a group of young people wearing white rubber wristbands stenciled with the word “cambio,” or “change,” and held them for hours before releasing them without filing charges, a human rights activist said Thursday.
The detentions, which took place Monday, went little-noticed on the island but sparked an outcry three days later in Washington, where top officials and critics of Cuba’s communist government said at least 70 youths had been arrested.
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said an unknown number of young people were wearing the bracelets when they were detained and taken to a police station in central Havana.
He said no formal charges were filed and that most of the group was released after a short time, but that a few may have been held until early Tuesday. The youths, however, had to relinquish their bracelets, Sanchez said.
In Washington, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez on Thursday said 70 Cubans were arrested. Gutierrez added that he himself wears the “change” wristband to support Cubans who want democracy.
“Their unjustified detainment is exactly why Cuba needs change now,” Gutierrez, a Cuban-American and co-chair of the White House Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, said in a statement. “The Cuban people deserve an end to these tragedies.”
Sanchez said he “could not confirm or deny” reports that 70 people were arrested. The Cuban government, which tolerates Sanchez’s commission and other dissident organizations but dismisses them as “mercenary” groups of the United States, has not commented.
Government critics began wearing “change” bracelets several years ago, Sanchez said. It is common to see dissidents wearing them during meetings with foreign journalists, though the movement seems to have gained little traction among the general population in Cuba.
Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, condemned the detentions on the floor of the Senate Thursday and said: “Today, we hear another 40 have been arrested.”
That report of an additional 40 detentions could not be confirmed in Havana.
“It is unconscionable,” said Martinez, who was joined on the floor by Sens. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, Texas Republican John Cornyn and New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez.
In his first major address focused only on Cuba in four years, President Bush last week urged Cubans to “shape your own destiny” by ridding themselves of the communist government.
The Cuban government rejected Bush’s speech as tantamount to a call to take the island by force. Life in Cuba has remained little changed since Fidel Castro underwent a series of emergency intestinal surgeries and ceded power to his younger brother Raul in July 2006.