Freedom House has condemned the arrests over the weekend of an estimated 80 Cuban dissidents, including the leader of the Ladies in White, Berta Soler, and called on the Cuban government to release those who remain in custody and to cease arbitrary detentions of nonviolent civic groups.
The arrests were carried out by state security in Havana and in the provinces of Villa Clara and Santiago de Cuba as part of a coordinated effort to quell dissent in the lead-up to Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the island on March 26, said the organization. While most detainees have been released, others remain in custody, including former political prisoner Angel Moya.
“These arbitrary arrests reflect a hackneyed pattern on the part of the Cuban government to silence civil society during critical moments in which they fear mass discontent and public mobilization,” said Viviana Giacaman, director for Latin America programs at Freedom House. “The Cuban government fears pro-democracy demonstrations while the Pope is on the island and these detentions are sending a clear message to Cuban civil society to remain quiet.”
Approximately 74 representatives of the Ladies in White were detained, including 36 who were arrested on Sunday as they gathered to celebrate the 9th anniversary of the Black Spring. During the infamous crackdown in 2003, 75 peaceful dissidents were arrested and summarily sentenced for up to 28 years in prison. While they were detained, the Ladies in White were warned by the authorities to suspend their weekly Sunday marches in front of Santa Rita church, where they have been allowed to march since 2010.
The Ladies in White have sent the Pope videos documenting the government’s violent attacks and coordinated acts of repudiation, and have repeatedly requested a meeting with him during his visit to Cuba. The Pope has yet to accept this request.
“The Catholic Church is in a unique position to foster a meaningful dialogue among different sectors of society on basic questions of respect for human rights and dignity of Cubans,” continued Ms. Giacaman. “We urge the Pope to take advantage of this opportunity and to meet with dissidents during his visit.”
Arbitrary detentions are commonplace in Cuba. In 2011, 4,132 detentions were documented and 1,234 more were documented between January and February of 2012, freedom House said.
Freedom House consistently places Cuba among the world’s most repressive societies. Cuba is ranked Not Free in Freedom in the World 2012, Freedom House’s survey of political rights and civil liberties, and Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2011. The island nation also received the third-lowest ranking in Freedom on the Net, a study of internet freedom in 37 countries released in 2011.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.