Cuba's new Castro shows little patience with 'Women in White'

Cuba's "Women in White" who staged a street protest in Havana to demand the release of their dissident husbands discovered they can expect no gentler treatment from the two-month-old government of Raul Castro than they could from that of his brother, Fidel. Ten women from the group were roughed up by a crowd of government supporters who outnumbered them 10 to one, and were thrown into a bus and driven home.

The women had gathered at a park on the edge of Revolution Square in the centre of Havana, just behind a monument to the hero of Cuban independence, Jose Marti. Their trademark white T-shirts bore the names and printed photographs of their imprisoned husbands, all of them swept up in a large crackdown in 2003 on anti-Castro activists.

"We are here to demand the release of our husbands and won't leave until they are free or they arrest us. We have waited long enough, we want to talk to the new President," said Laura Pollan, one of the protesters.

They were there just moments when a bus pulled up and 20 policewomen piled out and tried to arrest them. In response, the Women in White sat down, clasped their arms tightly around each other and refused to move.

"They are dying, they are dying," one women yelled with tears in her eyes, referring to the imprisoned husbands.

When the policewomen failed to dislodge them, a crowd of mainly female pro-government activists poured out of nearby government buildings and jumped on the protesters, shoving them and yelling insults before picking them up one by one and shoving them into the bus.

Some of the women were pinned to the ground and their arms held together behind their back.

"They dropped the Havana residents at their homes and sent the others back to their homes in the provinces," Marta Bonachea, a spokeswoman for the women, later told Reuters by phone. The protesters shouted "Freedom! Freedom!" from the windows of the bus as they travelled through the Havana streets.

Street protests are rare in Cuba, and when they occur they are usually broken up by plainclothes security officers. Monday's incident was unusual only because the policewomen wore uniforms.

The Women in White last appeared in Revolution Square in 2005 to deliver a letter to the authorities demanding the release of all of Cuba's political prisoners – estimated by local human rights activists to number about 230.

They also conduct a regular silent protest down Havana's Fifth Avenue.

The 2003 crackdown targeted 75 dissidents, of whom 55 remain behind bars. Sixteen of them have been released for medical reasons and another four were sent into forced exile in Spain just last month.

The release of those four dissidents gave some cause for hope that Raul Castro might be interested in some relaxation of his brother's iron refusal to brook public dissent. (Protesters are usually denounced as agents of the United States bent on the overthrow of the government.) Mr Castro has made other modest moves towards liberalisation, including the first authorisation on the island of mobile phones and the registration of previously illegal ones.

A major cabinet reshuffle is expected over the summer, nominally aimed to avoid duplication in government institutions. One high-level personnel change was announced yesterday with the replacement of the Education Minister.

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