By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ | The Associated Press
Hundreds of government supporters shouted insults and pro-Castro slogans at about 50 wives, mothers and other female relatives of Cuban political prisoners as they marched Wednesday through a crowded Havana neighborhood in the name of human rights.
There were no injuries among the “Women in White,” a political opposition group that holds small, silent marches along Fifth Avenue in a wealthier part of the Cuban capital each Sunday after attending Roman Catholic Mass. The women dress head-to-toe in white.
The demonstrations usually only go for a few blocks and rarely draw the ire of supporters of Fidel and Raul Castro, nor do they generate much support among the general population, who know little about the dissidents.
But this time, the group left from the central Havana apartment of Laura Pollan, one of the organization’s founders and the wife of Hector Maceda, who is serving a 20-year prison sentence for his political views. They also marched for more than an hour.
Supporters of Cuba’s communist government are especially edgy this week given that Thursday marks International Human Rights Day, which annually prompts the Women in White and other tiny dissident groups to stage marches.
On Wednesday, the women made their way through the streets carrying copies of the universal declaration of human rights and occasionally chanting “Liberty! Liberty! Liberty!”
A crowd followed behind yelling “Fidel! Fidel!” and “Down with worms!” - the latter a common slang for Cubans who head into exile in the United States.
After the women returned to Pollan’s home, which is filmed day and night by a government camera mounted nearby and also often watched by state agents in plainclothes stationed on nearby street corners, the government supporters continued to shout insults while the women cowered inside.
“For 50 years they’ve been violating our rights and those of our husbands,” Pollan said.
Pollan’s group was formed after what Cuban dissidents call the “Black Spring” in 2003.
With the world’s attention focused on the start of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Cuba’s government rounded up 75 leading political opposition leaders, activists and independent journalists and sentenced them to lengthy prison terms for allegedly conspiring with Washington to undermine the island’s political system.
The Communist Party is the only political party allowed in Cuba and the government tolerates no organized opposition, imposing strict controls on freedom of speech, assembly, expression and the press. The island’s leading independent human rights group says more than 200 political prisoners are being held in Cuba.
Some of those arrested in the 2003 crackdown have been released on medical parole and others were freed into forced exile in Spain or after serving their sentences, but 53 remain behind bars.