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Cuba is opening up to public criticism — but not from the Ladies in White.
The six women absorbed the taunting stoically, staring straight ahead and holding up their fingers in an L shape for “Libertad” (Freedom).
“Mercenaries! Traitors!” the crowd screamed in the women’s faces. “Leave!”
Plainclothes government agents with earpieces and aviator sunglasses stood by, intervening whenever things got too physical. Throngs of police closed off the street, a major thoroughfare, and a handful of passing Cubans stopped to watch, though they neither joined in nor interfered.
“We have problems in Cuba, but we also have a government that provides us with social security,” said Aracely Keeling, a pro-Castro supporter who also denounced the “media campaign” against the island. “These women are here because they’re paid by the United States,” Keeling shouted.
She was referring to documents released by the Cuban government in 2008 showing that the Ladies in White have received support and financial help from U.S. officials and anti-Castro militants in Florida. While some members of the group have acknowledged receiving the assistance, they say they’ve got no other way to support themselves in a country where the average wage is $20 a month and almost all legal employment is controlled by the government.
Their harassment last Sunday continued the entire day, as the crowd refused to allow the women to walk away and the women declined offers from government security agents to escort them onto a bus.
“It was seven and a half hours of insults,” said Laura Pollan, one of the group’s leaders, the following day. “That was physical and psychological torture.”
The women have vowed to continue attempting to march, though their numbers have dwindled with each passing week as the harassment escalates.
Their Sunday procession was the only tolerated public protest against the Cuban government on the island, but with their daily marches last month, the women seem to have crossed a line. The government hasn’t explained why it’s now blocking them, but each weekend brings a new batch of photos and videos that draw attention to Cuba’s human rights record.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Cuba’s highest-ranking Catholic official, called the acts of repudiation “shameful” in a recent interview published in Palabra Nueva, the magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Havana.
“This type of verbal, even physical, intolerance should not remain in our nation's history as a characteristic feature of Cubans," he said. But Ortega also denounced U.S. and Spanish “media violence” against the Cuban government after Zapata Tamayo’s fatal hunger strike, saying the coverage had worsened tensions on the island.