By Jeff Franks | Reuters
Cuba’s dissident “Ladies in White” staged a small, mostly silent march through Havana on Monday to begin a week of protest to mark the anniversary of the “Black Spring” crackdown of 2003 when the government imprisoned 75 opponents.
The anniversary on Thursday comes at a delicate time for Cuba’s communist government, whose human rights record is already under fire for the Feb. 23 death of dissident hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo and for its handling of another opposition hunger striker who has vowed to die for his cause.
About three dozen women, dressed in the dissident group’s traditional white clothes and carrying flowers, walked through Central Havana to a nearby church where they shouted “Zapata lives”, but otherwise said nothing.
Zapata’s mother, Reyna Tamayo, led the march.
Passersby looked on with surprise, but in contrast to a December march for International Human Rights Day when the ladies were jostled and jeered by government supporters, there were no incidents.
Ladies in White leader Laura Pollan said her group, made up of wives and relatives of those jailed in 2003, would stage marches through the city every day this week.
The protests are aimed at stirring support for those imprisoned in what became known as the “Black Spring” crackdown on government opponents, which began March 18, 2003 and drew broad international condemnation of Cuba.
Of those arrested then, 52, including Pollan’s husband Hector Maseda, remain behind bars. In a declaration from prison last week, they called for Cubans to mark the anniversary by fasting and discussing the Bible.
Zapata, a 42-year-old construction worker, has become a rallying figure for Cuba’s opposition since he died after an 85-day hunger strike demanding better prison conditions.
Pollan said the Ladies in White opposed hunger strikes, but that “unfortunately, you have to water the fields for them to flower. For us, we have had to water them with blood, and that blood was of Orlando Zapata.”
Cuban President Raul Castro, who replaced his ailing brother Fidel Castro two years ago, expressed regret about Zapata’s death, but blamed it on the United States for supporting dissent against the Cuban government.
Another hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas, 48, is in the 20th day of his protest fast in the central city of Santa Clara seeking the release of 26 ailing political prisoners. He collapsed on Thursday and remains in hospital receiving fluids intravenously.
The two cases have brought calls for Cuba to release its estimated 200 political prisoners and renewed condemnation from the United States and Europe.
The European Parliament voted last week to denounce the death of Zapata, and it expressed alarm about Farinas.