Cuban security forces beat up opposition activist Antonio G. Rodiles and detained nearly 100 other dissidents on Sunday, just a few days before the scheduled opening of U.S. and Cuban embassies in Havana and Washington.
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Meanwhile, the archdiocese of Havana denied Monday that Cardinal Jaime Ortega used harsh words, such as “worms,” to criticize the Miami news media during a confrontation with dissidents at a July 4 reception at the home of the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba.
Former political prisoners Egberto Escobedo and José Díaz Silva claim that they and other activists approached Ortega at a reception at the home of the head of the U.S. Interests Section to hand him a list of political prisoners, in anticipation of a possible pardon during Pope Francis' upcoming visit. Ortega declared last month that there are no political prisoners in Cuba.
Escobedo and Diaz have alleged in news reports that Ortega refused to accept the list, saying it contained information from “the worm media” or the “counterrevolutionary media” in South Florida. “Worm” is a derogatory Cuban government term for anti-Castro exiles.
In the Sunday incident, Rodiles, well known for his work on human rights and leader of civic projects, such as Estado de SATS and the Forum for Rights and Freedoms, suffered a broken nose from a punch to the face and underwent surgery at the Calixto García Hospital in Havana.
Speaking with difficulty by phone, Rodiles said he was punched on the nose by a State Security agent in a vehicle after he had been arrested and handcuffed but had continued to shout “Long Live Freedom” and “Long Live Human Rights.” He also had been punched earlier by agents who refused to identify themselves, he added.
The agents were trying to block Rodiles from participating in the protest march that members of the dissident Ladies in White stage after mass every Sunday in front of the Santa Rita church in the Miramar neighborhood to request the release of all political prisoners.
SHOW OF SUPPORT
Rodiles, who has proposed a general amnesty law, said he hopes that with the law, “beyond the release of one or two political prisoners, there is an amnesty and a decriminalization of activities involving political opinions.” The crimes mentioned in the proposed amnesty include acts “against the Revolution, the Security of the State and the construction of a Socialist political-economic system.”
Ladies in White leader Berta Soler said members of her organization and other dissidents have been detained and harassed by State Security agents and police during 12 consecutive Sundays. She said Monday that she was still trying to put together the list of all the people arrested on Sunday, which she estimated at about 100.
Soler added that a Cuban-American woman was arrested along with the Ladies in White, but that she did not know the visitor's name.
On Friday, dissidents, among them Jorge Luís Garcia Perez, also known as Antunez, had announced that they would join the Sunday marches of the Ladies in White to show their support for the women.
The Ladies in White had been carrying out their marches after Sunday mass largely without significant repression from government security forces since 2010 — the only regular public protests allowed in the Communist-ruled island. But security agents have cracked down when the women tried to march away from the Santa Rita church and when other women tried to march in other parts of the country.
“Since Dec. 17, when the U.S. Government announced that it would reestablish (diplomatic) relations with the Cuban government, the Cuban government has been brutally attacking human rights activists,” Soler said by phone from Havana. Neither the U.S. Government, the European Union nor Pope Francis “have raised their voices to ask for a halt in the political violence against dissidents and human rights activists.”
During his Thursday declaration from the White House Rose Garden confirming the restoration of diplomatic relations, President Barack Obama cautioned that he did not expect “Cuba to be transformed overnight,” but added that he believed “American engagement — through our embassy, our businesses, and most of all, through our people — is the best way to advance our interests and support for democracy and human rights.”
Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, condemned the attack on Rodiles and added that it was “predictable” that human rights abuses would continue in Cuba after Obama announced the “unconditional” opening of the embassies.
“There is no other way to see this but as silence from the president,” said Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba. “Obama is giving strength to the hardest elements within the regime, who understand that this is the moment to destroy the opposition.”
Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Center at Florida International University, said the increase in the repression against dissidents was “contradictory” to the expectations created by the rapprochement between the two countries.
“It appears that there is a public face, for the people abroad, and another one, the domestic strategy for containing the dissidence,” he said.
Duany added that Cuban ruler Raúl Castro himself “has insisted that … the improving relations with the U.S. does not signal political concessions.”
The incident where Cardinal reportedly referred to “the worm media” in South Florida was held at the home of Jeffrey DeLaurentis, head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana.
Silva told the blog Cubanet that “when we asked him (Ortega) why 12 former political prisoners from the spring of 2003 still cannot leave the island, he got mad. He told us, ‘you're listening to news reports from the counterrevolution in Miami.’”
The confrontation turned sharper and Ortega warned that he would call the security guards at the reception, according to the former political prisoners.
Rodiles, who also attended the receptions, said he had to “insist” for Ortega to receive a copy of his amnesty proposal, and described the cardinal's comments as “very lamentable.”
A statement from the archdiocese of Havana on Monday, however, flatly denied the cardinal had used harsh language “because those terms have no place in his language,” and added that Ortega had suggested to Escobedo that he hand in the list at the archdiocesan office.
“Upset by Cardinal Ortega's suggestion to hand in the document in the right place, Mr. Escobedo began to criticize the cardinal in a loud voice for his recent declarations, as well as his role during the process of releasing political prisoners in 2010-2011,” added the statement, signed by Orlando Márquez, spokesman for the archdiocese. “The cardinal in fact responded that he should not be guided by what some news media have reported, because there's a lot of church work on behalf of the prisoners that is not known and is done in silence.”
When Escobedo continued his “strong criticisms,” another priest at the receptions urged him to “show respect and behave appropriately” or “otherwise a security guard from the U.S. Interests Section would have to be called to put an end to the disagreeable encounter.”
The reception, with about 300 guests, brought together dissidents, well-known artists, U.S. politicians and Cuban officials. Several of the opposition activists had their photos taken with popular Cuban actors and actresses.