Cuban police seized hundreds of toys from dissidents in a string of raids early Friday described by a pro-government blogger as a crackdown on a planned “provocation” — giving the toys, paid for by Miami exiles, to children.
Among the homes raided were those of José Daniel Ferrer, a former political prisoner and founder of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), and the headquarters of the dissidents Ladies in White in Havana.
UNPACU members said State Security agents and police raided Ferrer’s home in the eastern town of Palmarito de Cauto at 5 a.m. Friday as well as the homes of two other group members in the nearby cities of Santiago de Cuba and Holguín.
Police search warrants specifically mentioned “toys, money and other goods of illegal origin,” said UNPACU member Yusmila Ferrera. Dissidents planned to distribute 700 toys throughout the island to mark Three Kings Day, Cuba’s traditional gift-giving day.
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The raiders of Ferrer’s home seized all the stockpiled toys plus five computers, several cellphones and about $600 in cash, Ferrera said. More toys, other computers, phones and $180 in cash were seized in the two other raids.
Belkis Cantillo, head of the Ladies in White in eastern Cuba, told El Nuevo Herald that she and 11 group members were staging a sit-in Friday in a house in Palmarito “to demand the return of what they [police] stole from us today.”
Ferrer and nine other UNPACU members were hauled away by police during the raids. All except Ferrer were released one hour later, and there was no word on his whereabouts as of Friday evening, said UNPACU member Andris Verdecia.
Ladies in White leader Berta Soler said police also raided her group’s headquarters in Havana at 5 a.m. and seized the toys, food, 70 chairs, a laptop and three printers, toilet paper and 100 towels and bed sheets that were to be donated to the children’s parents.
“This has been a plunder,” Soler told El Nuevo Herald from the headquarters, the home of the group’s late founder, Laura Pollán.
Soler said she and her husband Angel Moya, who like Ferrer was jailed from 2003 to 2011, were detained by police Friday morning as they left their home in the eastern Havana suburb of Alamar but were released after the raid was completed.
The Havana Ladies in White will continue, she said, with their plans to hand out toys to 150 to 200 children on Saturday in their annual gift drive, started in 2004 to mark the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, when the three kings delivered gifts to the baby Jesus.
Police also have warned several Ladies in White members Friday to stay away from the event Saturday or face arrest, independent journalist Roberto J. Guerra reported.
UNPACU spokesman Guillermo Fariñas said the money to buy the toys in Cuban stores was donated by Cuban business people in South Florida “from their personal pockets” in an effort coordinated by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).
“There is no shame in saying that Cuban exiles are capable of sending us money to donate toys to children,” he said from his home in Santa Clara, in central Cuba. The toys he plans to distribute are in several different houses and had not been seized.
With the island facing an economic crisis, Fariñas added, the government decided, “in its inability to give toys to poor children, to seize our toys.”
Dissidents who have been allowed to travel abroad for the first time in decades this year have been picking up cash and other forms of support as they make public appearances in their travels.
The planned gift-giving gatherings were not going to include any mention of politics, only chats on religion and God, Fariñas said.
Cuban officials made no mention of the raids, but a pro-government Twitter account that uses the name of Yohandry Fontana painted the toys as part of a campaign to subvert the communist government by the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
“They no longer respect even children. They were attempting a media show and provocation. Everything dismantled!” said one tweet from Fontana, believed to be a pseudonym used by one or more State Security agents.
Another Fontana tweet said police had seized “money and means from mercenaries,” and still another alleged, “USAID and CANF are linked.” Fontana also described UNPACU as “an arm of the CIA,” and CANF as “a terrorist organization.”
The crackdown came two days after Cuban ruler Raúl Castro, in a speech marking the 55th anniversary of the victory of the country’s revolution, warned against a campaign by “powerful forces” to undermine the communist system, especially the youth.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, said Friday’s arrests showed that “55 year later, this brutal dictatorship remains committed to maintaining a bloody grip over the island, denying human rights and democratic freedoms to 11 million Cubans.”
“The campaign that the tyrant is afraid of is the one waged by opposition leaders that is based on respect for human rights, multi-party elections and freedom of expression,” she declared in a statement.
The Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba issued a statement Friday urging international human rights organizations to demand an immediate end to the arrests of dissidents and other forms of repression.