Ladies in White

Cuba allows dissidents to march after 3 weeks of confrontation
By: Anne-Marie Garcia, The Associated Press

HAVANA – Cuba allowed a small group of dissidents to hold a protest
march on Sunday after the country's top Roman Catholic clergyman
negotiated with authorities, ending three straight weeks of ugly

The government's decision was a victory for the — or
Ladies in White — who had marched peacefully and with little fanfare
down Havana's Quinta Avenida boulevard for seven years before the
government suddenly forbade the protests on April 11. The group is
comprised of the wives and mothers of some 75 dissidents jailed in a
2003 crackdown, as well as supporters who joined them later.

Sunday's march followed a Mass at Santa Rita de Casia Church presided
over by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who told parishioners, including 13
Damas, that he had intervened with authorities to allow the women to
resume their small protests.

Ortega said he assured authorities that the Damas would not try to
expand their activities, but would return to their normal Sunday routine.

"I gave a sort of guarantee that they are going to do what they have
always done," and no more, the cardinal told reporters.

The government's unusual decision to negotiate, he said, "is a slightly
new way of acting. Before, one was answered with silence. Now, we have
an answer."

Laura Pollan, the Damas' leader, said authorities have agreed to let the
women march during the month of May, and will review their decision
after that.

"For us, it is a little victory," Pollan said after the march. "We feel
partially satisfied because we don't have to ask for permission and we
are going to continue marching. But we will be most satisfied only when
our relatives are freed."

No reason was given for the government's about-face, just as no reason
was given for the decision to stop the protests in April.

Ortega did not say which official he had talked with, but the
clergyman's intervention clearly worked.

On the past three weekends, as the women emerged from church, waiting
Cuban officials told them not to march and crowds of pro-government
counter-protesters surrounded them. Last weekend, the Damas stood under
a large ficus tree for seven hours while the counter-protesters screamed
at them.

Cuba says the counter-protests occur spontaneously due to islanders'
hatred of the opposition, but little effort is made to hide
co-ordination between state agents and the crowd.

Cuba's record has been in the spotlight since the Feb. 23
death of a hunger striker. In March, the Damas broke their
routine of weekly protests with seven straight days of marches in
various locations in Havana. Hundreds of shouting pro-government
demonstrators turned out at each of the marches and security agents
forcefully bundled the women into a when they refused to stop one of
the protests.

Cuban officials denounced the sudden media attention as part of a global
campaign against the island directed by Washington. The government
considers the opposition, including the Damas, to be paid mercenaries
and common criminals.

Ortega recently said in an April interview with a church magazine that
Cuba is in a deep crisis and that its people are hungry for political
and economic changes sooner rather than later.

He said Sunday the Damas' need to march was "very understandable and
very human."

"These women are fighting for the of their husbands and
relatives," he said. "No matter their cause, I think that they are
people that merit respect and special consideration."

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