Cuba allows dissidents to march after 3 weeks of confrontation

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba allowed a small group of dissidents to hold a protest march on Sunday after the country's top Roman Catholic clergyman negotiated with authorities, ending three straight weeks of ugly confrontations.

The government's decision was a victory for the Damas de Blanco — or Ladies in White — who had marched peacefully and with little fanfare down Havana's Quinta Avenida boulevard for seven years before the government suddenly forbade the protests on April 11. The group is comprised of the wives and mothers of some 75 dissidents jailed in a 2003 crackdown, as well as supporters who joined them later.

Sunday's march followed a Mass at Santa Rita de Casia Church presided over by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who told parishioners, including 13 Damas, that he had intervened with authorities to allow the women to resume their small protests.

Ortega said he assured authorities that the Damas would not try to expand their activities, but would return to their normal Sunday routine.

"I gave a sort of guarantee that they are going to do what they have always done," and no more, the cardinal told reporters.

The government's unusual decision to negotiate, he said, "is a slightly new way of acting. Before, one was answered with silence. Now, we have an answer."

Laura Pollan, the Damas' leader, said authorities have agreed to let the women march during the month of May, and will review their decision after that.

"For us, it is a little victory," Pollan said after the march. "We feel partially satisfied because we don't have to ask for permission and we are going to continue marching. But we will be most satisfied only when our relatives are freed."

No reason was given for the government's about-face, just as no reason was given for the decision to stop the protests in April.

Ortega did not say which official he had talked with, but the clergyman's intervention clearly worked.

On the past three weekends, as the women emerged from church, waiting Cuban officials told them not to march and crowds of pro-government counter-protesters surrounded them. Last weekend, the Damas stood under a large ficus tree for seven hours while the counter-protesters screamed at them.

Cuba says the counter-protests occur spontaneously due to islanders' hatred of the opposition, but little effort is made to hide coordination between state agents and the crowd.

Cuba's human rights record has been in the spotlight since the Feb. 23 death of a dissident hunger striker. In March, the Damas broke their routine of weekly protests with seven straight days of marches in various locations in Havana. Hundreds of shouting pro-government demonstrators turned out at each of the marches and security agents forcefully bundled the women into a bus when they refused to stop one of the protests.

Cuban officials denounced the sudden media attention as part of a global campaign against the island directed by Washington. The government considers the opposition, including the Damas, to be paid mercenaries and common criminals.

Ortega recently said in an April interview with a church magazine that Cuba is in a deep crisis and that its people are hungry for political and economic changes sooner rather than later.

He said Sunday the Damas' need to march was "very understandable and very human."

"These women are fighting for the freedom of their husbands and relatives," he said. "No matter their cause, I think that they are people that merit respect and special consideration."


Associated Press writer Paul Haven contributed to this report.