Families of Cuban Dissidents Protest in Havana

One year after Cuba rounded up 75 activists in a crackdown on dissent, wives and relatives of the prisoners fasted for 12 hours to demand their immediate release.

The dissenters — 74 men and a woman — were sentenced after the March 18, 2003, roundup to terms of six to 28 years, accused of working for the U.S. government to undermine the communist government of Fidel Castro (search). The dissidents have said their only crime was speaking their mind.

"We make another call for the release of the 75 innocent prisoners, just as we have made various calls in the past," said Gisela Delgado, wife of jailed opposition party leader Hector Palacios (search).

"The government has been increasingly intransigent, but we will keep on fighting," said Delgado, who wore a white T-shirt printed with a color photograph of her husband.

Palacios, who recently underwent a gall bladder operation, is one of more than a dozen of the prisoners currently hospitalized in custody for serious ailments.

Sitting under a red, white and blue Cuban flag tacked to the wall of her living room, Delgado spent the day in a protest fast with other prisoners' wives.

At another gathering, Yolanda Vazquez, wife of imprisoned journalist Manuel Vazquez, called the wives' protest "a triumph."

"I thank all the world for their solidarity with the 75 prisoners," said Blanca Reyes, wife of jailed journalist and poet Raul Rivero.

Human rights groups around the world also called this week for the immediate release of the prisoners.

"After a detailed review of the legal cases against them, it is clear that they are prisoners of conscience — detained for the peaceful expression of their beliefs," said the London-based Amnesty International (search).

At about the same time the dissidents were sentenced, Cuba executed three hijackers of a passenger ferry.

Cuba has said the crackdown was necessary to protect the island from attempts by foreign powers to topple its communist leadership. It justified the firing-squad executions of the hijackers, saying they were necessary to prevent a mass exodus of migrants that could spark U.S. military action against the island.

Palacios, president of Cuba's outlawed Democratic Solidarity Party (search), was sentenced to 25 years in what some dissidents here call the "Cuban Spring" — a reference to the short-lived "Prague Spring" reform effort crushed by former Czechoslovakia's communist government in 1968.

Palacios was also an organizer for the Varela Project (search), a signature-gathering effort that seeks a voter's referendum on laws guaranteeing civil rights such as freedom of speech, assembly and private business ownership.

The initiative, later shelved by Cuba's National Assembly as unconstitutional, also sought electoral reforms and an amnesty for political prisoners.

The anniversary of the Cuban crackdown was remembered Thursday in Prague, Czech Republic, where about 200 protesters marched outside the Cuban Embassy chanting: "Cuba si! Castro no!"

In Washington this week, four Cuban-American members of the U.S. Congress introduced a resolution calling for the condemnation of the Castro government.

U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, all Republicans from Florida, and New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, also expressed support for jailed dissidents.

"The Cuban people should know that we stand shoulder to shoulder with them during these dark days and we will not falter till the oppressive Castro regime is gone for ever," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.