Women challenge Castro government

Wives and mothers of political prisoners completed an unprecedented week of protest marches in Havana in defiance of the authorities to press for the release of dissidents held for seven years.

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“I hope that these (marches) will be the last ones, that there won’t be an eighth anniversary,” said Laura Pollan, the leader of the so-called Ladies in White as they set out on a march Sunday to the offices of the National Assembly.

It is the only opposition group on the island that regularly takes their protests to the street, challenging the limits of the Americas’ only one-party communist regime’s tolerance for dissent.

Pro-government counter-protesters were out in force all week, including Sunday, heckling the women and shouting slogans like “the streets belong to the revolutionaries” and “the streets are with Fidel.”

The women, who march dressed in white and carrying white gladiolas, are demanding the release of the 53 political prisoners who remain locked up seven years after the government’s last major crackdown.

Twenty-two other prisoners have been released for health reasons since the March 2003 arrests, which the opposition calls “Black Spring.”

The women were accompanied by Reyna Luisa Tamayo, the mother of political prisoner Orlando Zapata, who died at age 42 in a hunger strike February 23 to protest prison conditions. She claimed that her son was tortured and his death a “premeditated murder;” Cuban authorities denied the claims.

Journalist and psychologist, Guillermo Farinas, launched another hunger strike the day after Zapata’s death demanding the release of 26 political prisoners who are in poor health. He has been hospitalized in the city of Santa Clara, 280 kilometers (168 miles) east of Havana.

The protests have aroused strong criticism of the Cuban regime in many European countries, the United States and among international rights organizations, but Havana has so far dismissed it all as a political campaign.

“It is, really, a colossal deception operation, the longest, most costly and dirtiest in history. It has lasted now half a century,” charged National Assembly speaker Ricardo Alarcon.

Departing from a Catholic church, where they first attend mass, the Ladies in White marched through various Havana neighborhoods each day this week, shouting “Liberty.”

But on Wednesday, in the Parraga district of Havana, the march was interrupted by the authorities, who forced the women onto two buses, after they had been shoved and hit by government supporters.

The incident prompted the government to reinforce the small group of security agents that normally accompany the marches to prevent incidents, establishing a large police cordon in the subsequent marches.

The government, which accuses the women of being “mercenaries,” and “the point of the spear” of US sponsored “subversion” on the island, carried its version of events for several days in television news shows, which was unusual.

“As a result, even though they speak badly of us, the entire Cuban people know that the Ladies in White are in the street asking for the freedom of our loved ones,” said Pollan.