By VANESSA ARRINGTON | Associated Press Writer
With shouts of “Viva Fidel,” female government supporters interrupted a weekly silent protest by wives of political prisoners held after Sunday church services.
The noisy standoff after Palm Sunday Mass at a Havana church appeared to be peaceful, but tensions ran high, prompting curious neighbors to leave their homes and cars to slow down for a better look.
It was the first such confrontation since the wives began the weekly protest shortly after the government crackdown in the spring of 2003 that put 75 activists behind bars. Cuba accused the dissidents of working with the United States to undermine Fidel Castro’s government — a charge the activists and Washington denied.
Over the last year, the dissidents’ wives, known as the “Ladies in White,” have become increasingly bold, staging candlelight vigils and public protests — practically unheard of in communist Cuba.
Some credit their pressure with leading to last year’s release of 14 of the 75 prisoners, but supporters of Castro’s government say the dissidents deserve to be behind bars and they feel little sympathy for the wives.
“We cannot let them damage the revolution,” said 70-year-old Aida Diaz, who said the counterprotest by about 150 women was organized by the Federation of Cuban Women.
She said the march outside the church by about 30 prisoners’ wives dressed all in white and holding flowers “goes against the country.”
The Cuban government launched the weeklong crackdown on March 18, 2003, rounding up the dissidents and later sentencing them to long prison terms.
While the wives demanded the release of their husbands, the protesters from the Federation of Cuban Woman called for the release of the “Five Heroes” ó five Cuban intelligence agents serving long terms in U.S. federal prisons.
Even before the Mass at the Santa Rita Roman Catholic Church in western Havana, several dozen state security officers in civilian clothes, some of them discreetly talking into walkie-talkies, were stationed outside the church, indicating that this week’s protest would be different.
After the prisoners’ wives left the sanctuary and began walking down a nearby avenue, the pro-Castro protesters marched aggressively toward them, waving tiny paper red, white and blue flags commonly used at government organized rallies.
The prisoners’ wives looked stunned by the protesters, who chanted “Viva Fidel” ó “Long Live Fidel!” ó and carried a full-sized Cuban flag and banner of revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
The government supporters surrounded the “Ladies in White” as they tried to continue walking. The wives cut their weekly ritual short, returning to the church steps then, after briefly gathering in a nearby park, going to a bus stop.
Alicia Rojas, the 34-year-old daughter of prisoner Jesus Manuel Rojas, said she would not be deterred.
“I feel more strength and courage to defend my father who is a political prisoner in this country,” she said.
Bertha Soler Fernandez, whose husband is prisoner Angel Moya Acosta, agreed.
“The government feels powerless to respond to us so it sends us these people to give a response,” she said.
The government protesters followed the women to the bus stop, shouting and shaking their fists as the bus drove away with the women on board.
“We are not going to permit them to take our streets,” Mileides Chavez, the general secretary of the Federation of Cuban Women for the municipality of Playa, yelled into a megaphone as the group gathered in the park.
The confrontation came a day after scores of neighbors broke up a protest by little-known dissident physician Dr. Darcy Ferrer, striking him with sticks and ripping down posters of prisoners’ photographs he had placed on the side of his house.