HAVANA — Police broke up a weekly march by wives and mothers of imprisoned Cuban opposition leaders Sunday, forcing them onto a bus and driving them home as a pro-government crowd screamed insults.
Uniformed police and plainclothes security agents blocked a sidewalk along Havana's Fifth Avenue, stopping at least five members of the "Damas de Blanco," or "Ladies in White," from following their traditional march route, said Bertha Soler, one of the group's leaders.
"There was a mob of government people shouting things," Soler said when reached by phone later at the home of Laura Pollan, who co-founded the group.
The "Ladies in White" traditionally attend Sunday Mass at Santa Rica Church in the upscale Miramar neighborhood, then march silently down the swank boulevard to demand the release of their relatives — top political activists, community organizers and independent journalists. They were rounded up during a government crackdown on dissent in 2003 and sentenced to lengthy prison terms for allegedly conspiring with Washington to topple Cuba's communist system.
The women dress all in white, carry pink gladiolas and, after a few blocks, stop to chant "Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!"
They have marched every Sunday for years and are usually allowed to do so without incident. But Soler, wife of prisoner Angel Moya, said a state security official visited Pollan's home Saturday to warn them not to demonstrate Sunday, saying they did not have government permission.
"I don't understand why we have to ask permission to march," she said.
The Cuban government had no immediate comment.
The mass arrests began March 18, 2003, when world attention was focused on the Iraq war. Of the 75 imprisoned, 53 remain behind bars, with the rest either paroled for health reasons, freed into forced exile in Spain or released after completing their sentences. The scene Sunday was reminiscent of a march last month that, after several peaceful protests to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the prisoners' detention, degenerated into a shouting match between "Ladies in White" members and government supporters. The confrontation ended with authorities again forcing the women onto buses and driving them home.
That sparked an outcry in the United States and prompted sympathy marches in Miami and Los Angeles.
Cuba's human rights situation has been a cause of renewed international tension since the Feb. 23 death of dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo after a long hunger strike in jail. The case was decried by the U.S. government as well as European leaders.
It also prompted another dissident, Guillermo Farinas, to refuse food and water for weeks. Farinas remains alive thanks to periodic intravenous feedings at a hospital near his home in central Cuba.
The communist government says the dissidents are part of an international campaign to defame Cuba fueled by foreign news media and the U.S., saying it will not to buckle to what it calls international "blackmail." It brands all opposition activists as common criminals and lackeys of Washington and says every country should have the right to jail those it deems traitors.