Cuba's 'Ladies in White' march blocked again

HAVANA (AP) — A small group of carefully choreographed government supporters shouted down an even smaller contingent of wives and mothers of jailed opposition activists Sunday, preventing their traditional march for the third straight week in another ugly confrontation that may be becoming a Cuban weekend tradition.

The face-off didn't end for seven hours, when the women finally boarded a city bus to be driven home following being surrounded by jeering counter-demonstrators in a park.

After seven years of peaceful protests following Mass in Havana's upscale Miramar neighborhood, Cuba has begun blocking the "Ladies in White" from marching since the group never obtained written permission to do so.

Officials first broke up their demonstration April 11, with a pro-government mob and buses that eventually gave the women a ride home. The following Sunday, counter-demonstrators surrounded the "Women in White," refused to let them march and shouted insults in an hourslong standoff that ended with the women again being driven home.

This time, six members — down from nine last week — left the Santa Rita de Casia Church and crossed swank Fifth Avenue to hold their demonstration on a sidewalk that runs down the middle of the boulevard. A state agent in a Che Guevara T-shirt said they couldn't march and Laura Pollan, one of the group's founders, tried to respond.

But the agent turned and walked away and that cued two waiting groups of about 50 counter-protesters each who came up the sidewalk from both directions hoisting large Cuban flags. The women marched until they ran into one group, then retraced their steps until meeting the other.

The women shouted "Freedom!" and held skyward the pink gladiolas they always carry. The counter-protesters surrounded them and shouted "Fidel! Fidel!" Muscular state security agents with earpieces wedged themselves in between the dueling protests to prevent violence.

Organizers in plainclothes moved through the counter-demonstrators suggesting chants. When they called for a song with a refrain "How Lovely is Cuba," the counter-demonstrators sang it repeatedly, jumping up and down.

The "Ladies in White" were jostled off the sidewalk and pinned near the entrance to the church's front yard. Shoving ensued and pro-government demonstrators grabbed their gladiolas and tore them up.

The women then moved to a nearby park, under trees that provided shade from the boiling sun. They remained there for seven hours, some still holding only the green stubs of their flowers.

It was a surprising show of stamina and meant ignoring shouts and enduring suffocating humidity and temperatures in the high 80s, with nothing to eat and no bathroom breaks — though the women did have a bag containing bottled water.

Trying to get them to leave sooner, the pro-government crowd parted and offered to let the women go one by one, then in groups of two, but never all together. The women declined.

Every few hours, new groups of government supporters relieved the counter-demonstrators who were losing their voices from shouting, and each new group was given water to ensure they had more energy than the "Ladies in White." Whenever any of the women tried to make a cell phone call, the crowd's hoots got especially loud to make it hard to hear.

As dusk began to fall, the women were allowed to board a bus and were driven home. Pollan held up her fingers in an "L," meaning "Libertad" or "Freedom," as protesters threw trash and empty water bottles in the open window of the departing bus.

The demonstration came on a day when Cuba had wanted to show off its municipal elections. Casting his ballot, Ricardo Alarcon, head of Cuba's parliament, became the first top official to respond to an assertion by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that Fidel and Raul Castro don't want Washington's 48-year embargo lifted because they would no longer be able to blame America for their country's problems.

"Mrs. Clinton is a very intelligent woman and I don't want to be rude with her," Alarcon said. "If she really believes the continuation of the embargo is in the benefit of our government, it's very simple for her to ask Congress to lift the embargo."

He also suggested Washington suspend its trade restrictions for one year to see what happens.

On April 9, Clinton said, "It is my personal belief that the Castros do not want to see an end to the embargo and do not want to see normalization with the United States because they would lose all of their excuses for what hasn't happened in Cuba in the last 50 years."

Members of the "Women in White" are relatives of 75 opposition activists arrested in a 2003 crackdown on dissent, but Cuba claims they are agents of Washington out to destabilize government.

During Sunday's protest, Miriam Leiva, a "Ladies in White" founder who stopped marching in 2008, showed up to watch from afar. Because she was wearing green, not all white, no one knew to shout at her.

"This is a desperate act by a desperate government," Leiva said.