As they have for 46 straight Sundays, the dissident Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) marched quietly along the Cuban capital’s Fifth Avenue — this time with fronds in their hands to mark Palm Sunday.
Their plea was the same as always: respect for human rights and universal amnesty for all political prisoners. But the timing of their march — just hours before President Barack Obama’s plane touched down at Jose Martí International Airport — gave their protest a different context.
And initially, it seemed as if perhaps the glare of the world media — journalists outnumbered protesters — might keep them safe from the usual routine of arrests and short-term detention.
It was not to be.
After the Ladies in White ended their demonstration in Gandhi Park with chants of “Libertad, Libertad, Libertad!” they decided to march another two blocks to the intersection of Third Avenue and 26th Street in the posh neighborhood of Miramar. There, pro-government crowds waving tiny Cuban flags and toting placards in support for Raúl and Fidel Castro awaited them.
As they approached the intersection, the Ladies and members of the #Todosmarchamos (We all march) campaign tossed fliers and scraps of paper advertising their cause high in the air. As the white paper rained down, the Ladies went limp and lay down in the street.
State security quickly encircled the women and then hustled them into three waiting buses labeled “Operations.” That’s when the pushing and shoving began, with the protesters shouting “Asesinos! Asesinos!” — murderers — as they were wrestled into the bus.
As the last of the Ladies in White was removed from the street, apparently organized pro-government Cubans began removing the fliers and paper scraps and putting them in black plastic bags.
This battle for the streets is a well-practiced ballet that occurs week after week. The government says it is protecting the Ladies from the government supporters. The dissidents say they are being repressed and at times violently beaten.
That it happened just hours before Obama’s arrival — and at a time that he’s on the defensive about ignoring the island’s human-rights record — underscores Havana’s hard line against domestic opposition.
Obama will be meeting with dissidents on Tuesday, including some involved in Sunday’s altercations.
So far this year, human rights monitor say the number of politically motivated detentions is increasing. Dissidents also claim that sometimes state security keeps them prisoners in their own homes, preventing them from attending rallies and other events.
“The regime wouldn’t permit the press to give testimony to this,” said Berta Soler, president of the group, who raked the Cuban government repressing its people. Many members of the Ladies in White couldn’t attend the march and rally, she said, because the government wouldn’t let them.
Antonio Rodiles, one of the founders of the Forum for Rights and Liberty, said the only reason he was able to make it to the rally at Gandhi Park was that a group of foreign journalists had accompanied him..
Though he doesn’t think the Obama trip is a good idea, now that the president is here, Rodiles said, “We want to see a clear message about repression in Cuba from President Obama. What we need is freedom for our country, what we need is freedom for our people."
Otherwise, he said, the Cuban government will believe it can continue repressive activities forever.
Both Soler and Rodiles have said they have been invited to meet with Obama but hadn’t decided if they would attend.
José Daniel Ferrer, general coordinator of the dissident group Unión Patriótica de Cuba, however, said he would be taking part. Ferrer also said that Manuel Cuesta Morúa, leader of Arco Progresista, a social democratic party; Convivencia magazine director Dagoberto Valdés; blogger Yoani Sánchez, and activist Guillermo Fariñas had been invited.
Many of the dissidents said the United States should have imposed conditions on Cuba before Obama came to the island.
The president told reporters last month that it would be “fun” to visit Cuba.
“There is no fun in this game,” said Claudio Fuentes, who often makes videos to debrief and record the bruises of dissidents after marches. “We need to see a condemning speech from Obama.”
Although the president says he wants to speak directly to the Cuban people as well as the Cuban diaspora, a speech of condemnation is unlikely.
“All the president’s visit is doing is legitimizing the government of Raúl Castro,” said Yamile Garro Alfonso, who said she has been marching nearly four years with the Ladies in White. “We have the right to elect a president in this country with what we’ve suffered for our country.”
Garro said she joined the Ladies in White when her sister Sonia Garro Alfonso was taken prisoner for her human rights activities. Her sister was released as part of a group of 53 Cuban prisoners freed shortly after the rapprochement with the United States was announced on Dec. 17, 2014.
The Ladies in White generally attend mass at a Miramar church before their march. But not everyone who attended the mass at Santa Rita’s on Palm Sunday was opposed to the president's visit.
As Vivian Treneard left the Mass with a palm frond in her hand, she got into a screaming match with Rodiles.
“Look, I love my country,” she shouted at him. “I was able to study, thanks to the Cuban revolution.”
After she and Rodiles heatedly debated their takes on Cuban reality, Treneard, who works in the tourism industry, said more calmly, “President Obama is going to come to see Cuban reality. Although there are problems here, I support the revolution, Raúl and all of them.”