Cuba intensifies campaign against dissidents

Cuba stepped up its campaign against the island's small dissident community on Sunday, with pro-government demonstrators screaming insults at the "Ladies in White" opposition group a day after state-television aired a program denouncing them as agents of Washington.

About 100 pro-government demonstrators surrounded the Ladies as they marched in Havana's Vedado neighborhood, shouting slogans like "Down with the Worms!" and "This Street Belongs to Fidel!" as well as some sexually offensive slogans.

The Ladies, mostly middle-aged wives and mothers of political prisoners jailed in a 2003 sweep against intellectuals and opposition figures, wore sweat shirts bearing the image of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a political prisoner who died last year after an 83-day hunger strike.

They stood in the middle of the street and refused to move, until security agents moved in and loaded them onto government buses. It was not clear where they were taken, though in the past the dissidents are usually brought back to their homes.

The ugliness, known as an "Act of Repudiation," is an oft-repeated spectacle in Cuba. The government contends the screaming crowd turns out spontaneously to denounce the opposition, though little is done to conceal coordination with state security agents who are also on the scene.

In past demonstrations, state agents have waved for supporters to come forward once it became clear the Ladies would not heed warnings to halt their march.

The women began their march outside a church in the leafy Miramar section of town at midday, as they have done every Sunday since 2003. The demonstration went off quietly, but when the Ladies showed up later in the day in Vedado, the crowds were waiting.

The incident came a day after Cuban television broadcast a program about the Ladies it said showed they were interested in getting money from the United States. Cuba maintains the relationship shows them to be mercenaries and common criminals.

The program, which included taped phone conversations and grainy images of opposition figures meeting with U.S. officials, also revealed that a man thought to be allied with the dissidents, Carlos Serpa, was really a state security agent.

Serpa even allowed himself to be filmed calling in a false report of mistreatment to the U.S. government backed Radio Marti in Miami, then showed how the false report went out on the air a short time later. The program said it was an example of how disinformation is spread.

Cuba is in the midst of releasing the last of the dissidents arrested in 2003, with just five remaining in jail. While most accepted exile in Spain, those released more recently have refused to go and been allowed to return to their homes. Many have vowed to continue fighting for political change, a direct challenge to a government ruled since 1959 by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro.

Tension has been particularly high in the past week because Wednesday was the anniversary of Zapata's death. Dissidents and a human rights official say some 46 opposition figures were detained in the days surrounding the anniversary, though were quickly released.

The Ladies in White did not march on the anniversary, but a pro-government crowd showed up outside the home of one of the group's leaders nonetheless, shouting and throwing eggs at 17 women who were gathered inside.