Every Sunday, dressed all in white, female relatives of current and former Cuban political prisoners gather at the church of Saint Rita, the patron of lost causes and silently walk through the city streets. Year after year, through good weather and bad, despite harassment by police and mobs, the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, continue their silent Sunday walk in protest of the incarceration of political prisoners in Cuba.
But on Sunday, March 18, before they could even begin their weekly stroll, Cuban police pounced, arrested the group’s leader and some three dozen of the Damas and took them away, leaving only a pitifully small group at Saint Rita’s church for their weekly walk down Quinta Avenida.
The arrest of the Damas was part of the Cuban government’s broad sweep-up of dissidents and human rights activists ahead of the upcoming visit by Pope Benedict XVI(16th).
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the U.S. government strongly condemns the action taken against the 70 members of Cuba’s civil society, including the Damas de Blanco, who were arrested over the weekend. "And the fact that so many of the Damas were rounded up and detained by the Cuban government as they were congregating for religious services barely a week before the visit of Pope Benedict is particularly reprehensible and a violation of the democratic principles that the hemisphere stands for,” Nuland said.
“President Obama and the American people remain steadfast in standing with the Damas and other courageous voices in Cuban civil society who demonstrate the Cuban people's desire to freely determine their country's future,” said spokesman Tommy Vietor on behalf of the White House.
“The detention of members of the Damas de Blanco this weekend in Havana in the lead-up to Pope Benedict's visit underscores the disdain of Cuban authorities for the universal rights of the Cuban people. The quiet dignity of the Damas stands in stark contrast with the acts of those who are standing in the way of the basic aspirations of the Cuban people,” he said.
“We call for the immediate release of all who were detained and for Cuban authorities to abandon their tactics of intimidation and harassment to stifle peaceful dissent.”