Fifty female relatives of Cuban political prisoners marched on Sunday to National Assembly headquarters demanding the release of their loved ones and braving insults and jeers from government supporters.
Monday is International Human Rights Day and the group, known as the “Women in White,” said the protest was a prelude to other activities this week designed to draw attention to abuses by the island’s Communist authorities.
Protests are rare in Cuba and in the past similar marches have often been broken up by government supporters.
“We are here to demand our prisoners’ freedom and so the government understands it’s punishing innocent people,” said Miriam Leiva, wife of recently freed dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe.
The women, dressed in white and holding flowers, marched some 20 blocks through the busy streets of Havana’s Miramar district to parliament headquarters, where a crowd of government supporters gathered and returned their chants of “freedom” with shouts of “mercenaries” and “worms.”
The Cuban government contends all its opponents are paid and organized by its arch-enemy, the United States, and often refers to anti-Castro activists in Florida as worms.
The hostile crowd followed the women for a few blocks as they marched back to Santa Rita Church, where they have held a weekly Sunday vigil since a 2003 crackdown on dissent landed dozens of anti-government activists in prison.
A group of 15 young women from Latin America and Europe with banners that read “democracy” and “freedom” joined the protesters at the church.
“Since we knew about the ladies in white we thought we would give them a little support,” said Laura Costa, a university student from Spain.
The women then gathered around a bust of Mahatma Gandhi in the nearby park to laud the revered Indian civil disobedience leader and thank the young women for their support.
“We want peace, love and liberty,” said Laura Pollan, leader of the group, which two years ago won the Sakharov prize, the European Union’s top human rights award.
Police have picked up dozens of dissidents in recent days in Cuba for temporary detention, according to Cuba’s main rights group, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which charges the government wants to stifle opposition street protests planned for Monday.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)