Cuba blocks opposition march

HAVANA (AP) — Cuban security agents denied the wives and mothers of jailed dissidents permission to hold their weekly march Sunday, setting off a long, strange standoff under the hot Caribbean sun that ended with the women being led away by officials.

After seven years of peaceful — mostly uneventful — Sunday protests, officials first stopped the women, known as the "Ladies in White," on April 11, and informed them they would need permission to hold future demonstrations.

The group, comprised mostly of the wives and mothers of some 75 dissidents arrested in a 2003 crackdown, had been the only one whose protests were tolerated by Cuba, and they had never requested or received permission before.

On Sunday, three state security officials waited for the women — just nine protesters in all — as they emerged from a Mass at the Santa Rita de Casia church in Havana's leafy Miramar neighborhood. Officials shut down traffic along Fifth Avenue, one of the city's main arteries.

"Excuse me, Mrs. Laura Pollan," one of the security officials said politely, addressing the "Ladies in White" leader. "You did not inform us, so there will be no march."

The official, who wore a red shirt and a black baseball cap with a picture of Ernesto "Che" Guevara" — would not give his name.

Pollan responded that she would only stop the protest if the government could produce a desist order in writing.

"You need to show us a legal document," she said.

"You have been advised," the official said, and with that he waved his hand in the air. Within seconds, two groups of counter-protesters descended on the women from both sides of the street, yelling and holding up a large Cuban flag.

"Down with the worms!" ''This street belongs to Fidel" they shouted, encircling the women and making it impossible to hear their shouts of "Freedom."

The government claims such "acts of repudiation" are spontaneous expressions of loathing of the opposition, but coordination between state agents and counter-protesters is open.

At the April 11 march, the Ladies in White had hardly walked a block before they were bundled into a state bus and taken away. This week, the women formed a small circle and stayed put, holding pink gladiolas over their heads as the pro-government demonstrators taunted them.

And thus began a two-hour contest of attrition. The women did not march, so they technically did not defy the government's ban. But they didn't leave either.

After an hour, two Ladies in White and one pro-government protester were unable to continue because of the heat, and a short while later a third Lady in White was led to a waiting ambulance.

"She's giving up!" some in the crowd shouted.

The women refused to get on a bus sent by the Ministry of the Interior to take them away. Finally, a passenger bus was redirected onto Fifth Avenue, officials ordered the Ladies in White to get on it, and the protest was over. It was not immediately clear where the women were taken, but in the past they have been released back at their homes.

The communist government says the dissidents are paid agents of Washington and part of an international campaign to defame Cuba. It brands all opposition activists as common criminals and lackeys of Washington and says every country should have the right to jail those it deems traitors.

Cuba's human rights situation has been a cause of renewed international tension since the Feb. 23 death of dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo after a long hunger strike in jail. Another dissident, Guillermo Farinas, had also refused food and water for weeks. Farinas remains alive thanks to periodic intravenous feedings at a hospital near his home in central Cuba.

The mass arrests of dissidents began March 18, 2003, when the world's attention was focused on the start of the war in Iraq. All of those arrested deny the charges against them.

Of the 75 imprisoned, 53 remain behind bars, with the rest either paroled for health reasons, freed into exile in Spain or released after completing their sentences.