Cuba Arrests Dozens of Human Rights Protesters Before Obama’s Arrival

Members of the Ladies in White, a group that protests against the Cuban government, are arrested by authorities following their weekly march hours before President Obama arrived for an historic visit March 20. (Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY)
Members of the Ladies in White, a group that protests against the Cuban government, are arrested by authorities following their weekly march hours before President Obama arrived for an historic visit March 20.
(Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY)

Just hours before President Obama is scheduled to land in Cuba on Sunday for his historic visit to the communist island, Cuban authorities arrested more than 50 dissidents who were marching to demand improved human rights.

Members of the group, known as the Ladies in White, are used to the routine. They march each Sunday after mass at a church in a suburb of Havana called Miramar and usually get arrested and detained for hours or days.

But some in the group thought that Cuban authorities would back off on this Sunday out of respect for Obama’s visit. Berta Soler, one of the founding members of the group who has been marching since 2003, said while walking to the church Sunday morning that maybe they would be allowed to protest without getting arrested.

“Everything looks good so far,” she said.

But despite the presence of dozens of international reporters in town for Obama’s trip, the group was quickly rounded up in buses and police cars.

“For us, it’s very important that we do this so President Obama knows that there are women here fighting for the liberty of political prisoners,” Soler said before being arrested. “And he needs to know that we are here being repressed simply for exercising our right to express ourselves and manifest in a non-violent way.”

Obama’s three-day trip to Cuba is designed to highlight the new relationship between the Cold War foes. After more than five decades of political and economic isolation, the two nations announced in Dec. 2014 that they would re-establish diplomatic relations. Ever since, embassies have reopened in Havana and Washington, U.S. cell phones can be used in Cuba, U.S. airlines are planning direct flights to the island and several U.S. companies have struck deals to trade with Cuba.

Obama is expected to embrace those changes during his trip, but the issue of human rights has been the most difficult negotiating point leading up to his visit. Secretary of State John Kerry was supposed to visit the island ahead of Obama’s trip, but cancelled over disagreements over which members of civil society he could meet with.

The White House has said that Obama will meet with a group of dissidents on Tuesday, but several have said they’re unsure if they’ll even be able to go.

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SOURCE: USA Today