HAVANA—A Cuban opposition group held three small marches in Havana in support of jailed dissidents Friday without meeting the kind of vehement pro-government response that has characterized past protests.
Members of the Ladies in White and their supporters marked International Human Rights Day by demonstrating at the headquarters of the Cuban prison system and at two jails in the capital. They accused the government of violating human rights by keeping in jail 11 dissidents who were arrested in 2003 as part of a crackdown on the opposition.
“They have innocent people in prison for seeking change in this nation,” said Alejandrina Garcia, wife of prisoner Diosdado Gonzalez.
“They shouldn’t be afraid to open up,” she said, referring to Cuba’s government.
The Ladies in White was formed by the wives and mothers of 75 dissidents, activists and social commentators who were arrested in 2003. The government alleges all the dissidents are paid by Washington to undermine the political system and says many of them were sentenced for crimes including treason.
Most of those arrested have since been released, many under an agreement brokered by the Roman Catholic Church earlier this year. Church officials have said they expect the last 11 to be freed soon, even though a Nov. 8 deadline to complete the deal has passed.
Some past marches by the Ladies in White have been met by rowdy “acts of repudiation,” as they are called in Cuba, including Thursday evening when a crowd followed them through the streets, haranguing them with insults.
Marches marking Human Rights Day in 2009 also turned ugly as pro-government crowds shouted insults at the dissidents and chased away a British diplomat observing the march. But there was no such confrontation Friday.
The government says the counterprotests are a spontaneous manifestation of the repulsion felt by Cubans toward dissidents. Many observers say the counterprotests are clearly coordinated with official sanction.
Meanwhile, Cuban officials organized several events to commemorate the day and defend the country’s record on human rights. The government points to things like universal health care and education, high literacy rates and a vibrant cultural life as evidence it is dedicated to the rights of its citizens.
Parliament chief Ricardo Alarcon addressed a forum on the “Cuban Five,” intelligence agents convicted in 2001 of spy charges in the United States and sentenced to long jail terms.
Cuba says the men are innocent. It says they were not a threat to the U.S. and were only keeping watch on militant anti-Castro groups the Cuban government accuses of a number of violent acts, including a 1990s hotel bombing campaign in Havana.
Alarcon said the men’s rights were violated by excessive sentences and because their trial was not moved from Miami, which is home to a large community of Cuban Americans. He urged President Barack Obama to intervene.
Asked whether Cuba would consider a prisoner swap of the five agents for U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross, who has been in jail in Cuba for more than a year without charges, Alarcon said the two cases are separate and he expects charges against Gross to be filed.
“His case will be treated according to our laws, respecting all procedures,” Alarcon said. “In the case of the five, more than enough time has passed for the (U.S.) president … to consider this.”
Cuba accuses Gross of spying, while his family and the U.S. government say he was in Cuba as part of a USAID program to distribute communications equipment to the island’s 1,500-strong Jewish community. The leaders of Havana’s two main Jewish groups have denied having anything to do with him.
Earlier Friday, a crowd of pro-government youths gathered in a public plaza to read aloud the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They danced, drummed and held up black-and-white portraits honoring victims of terrorism in Cuba, including a 1976 jetliner bombing that killed 73 people.