Cuba arrests 70 planning protest at pope visit
HAVANA - Agence France-Presse
Wearing a large brim typical Mexican hat, Pope Benedict XVI arrives at Bicentennial Park in his Popemobile in Silao, Guanajuato State, Mexico, where he is to celebrate an open-air mass on March 25, 2012. AFP photoAt least 70 dissidents have been arrested by Cuban authorities in an effort to stop a demonstration during a visit of Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives Monday, opposition sources said Sunday.
At least 15 of those detained were members of the Ladies in White, a prominent group of wives and family members of jailed political opponents, according to the dissidents.
The Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, a dissident group, said the arrests took place in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, where the pope was due to arrive Monday.
"We can confirm at least 70 detentions in the last four days, including 15 Ladies in White," the group said.
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the dissident group, said the communist government "is stepping up its actions of repression and intimidation against peaceful dissidents, especially in the province of Santiago and nearby areas." Former political prisoner Jose Daniel Ferrer told AFP the actions against dissidents began last Tuesday.. "The government wants complete control over the environment of the (pontiff's) masses and is seeking to avoid any incident of protest or opposition," he said.
One of the Ladies in White, Yelena Garces, said she was blocked by police when she tried to attend mass near Santiago. "They would not let us enter the church, there is no mass this weekend," she said. But the weekly march of the group took place without incident at Santa Rita church outside Havana. About 30 of the women attended mass and then marched around the church, with scores of journalists and foreigners watching, an AFP journalist said.
In Santiago, provincial Communist official Lazaro Exposito said earlier this month that Cubans would give the pope a warm welcome, and that no political signs or demonstrations would be allowed.
"Whether they are believers or not, they will be together as they welcome" the pope, he said.
Cuba is the Americas' only one-party Communist state. And even though most Cubans are not Catholic, the Roman Catholic Church in recent years has emerged as Cuba's most influential non-state actor.
The church has been deeply involved in mediating the release of political prisoners, and some opposition members have criticized its cooperation with the regime.