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Obama denounces Cuba's treatment of dissidents
Paul Haven, The Examiner
U.S. President Barack Obama denounced the Cuban government Wednesday for harassing the mother of a political prisoner who died after a long hunger strike, and said her treatment and the detention of other dissidents stood as evidence of the island's poor human rights record.
The statement came as a pro-government crowd in Havana threw eggs and shouted insults outside a home where the Cuban opposition group the Damas de Blanco — or Ladies in White — were marking the one-year anniversary of the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who passed away following an 83-day hunger strike.
A leading Cuban human rights leader told The Associated Press that at least 46 opposition activists had been detained across the island Wednesday, including another well-known hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas. Many of those detained were quickly released, but Farinas remained in custody late Wednesday afternoon.
Obama said Zapata's "selfless and tragic death" had "galvanized the world's attention to the ongoing mistreatment of those unjustly held by Cuban authorities."
"The Cuban people must know that their suffering does not go unnoticed and that the United States remains unwavering in our commitment to defend the inalienable right of the Cuban people to enjoy the freedoms that define the Americas and that are universal to all human beings," he said.
There was no immediate reaction from Cuba to the U.S. leader's statement, but it was sure to be met with anger and indignation. Relations between Washington and Havana have been frigid for decades, most recently over Cuba's decision to seek a 20-year jail term for a detained American subcontractor that officials here accuse of spying.
Obama's criticism followed similar sentiments by Amnesty International denouncing Cuba for its treatment of Zapata's mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, who was detained for about 12 hours last week in her hometown of Banes, in eastern Cuba.
Reached by telephone in Banes, Reina Luisa Tamayo said she spent the day laying flowers and a Cuban flag on her son's grave and then went to get passport photos made for a visa to the United States, which has granted her political refuge.
She said she plans to have her son cremated and bring the ashes when she departs Cuba for good — expected to be in the coming months, although Tamayo recently said she was still awaiting Cuban paperwork.
Cuba considers the dissidents to be mercenaries paid by Washington to destabilize the country, and says its doctors did everything they could to keep Zapata alive during his fast.
Since Zapata's death, the government has cleared its jails of many political prisoners. It has freed 46 activists, intellectuals and social commentators arrested in a 2003 crackdown, and now holds just six men arrested in that sweep who are considered "prisoners of conscience" by Amnesty.
It has also freed about 25 other prisoners arrested separately for violent — but politically motivated — crimes like hijacking and sabotage.
Obama credited Zapata and the Damas for forcing the government of President Raul Castro to let the prisoners go, and he called on Cuba to continue the releases.
"Today, I join the Cuban people in marking this anniversary by again calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Cuba," he said.
Elizardo Sanchez, a prominent human rights activist on the island, says around 100 such prisoners remain in Cuban jails, some convicted of violent acts including murder.
Sanchez told AP that he had documented 46 new detentions Wednesday, though he said many were quickly released and he hoped others would be soon. Among those taken into custody was Farinas, a dissident from the central city of Santa Clara who refused to eat for months last year, but was kept alive in a Cuban hospital where he was fed through a tube.
Members of the Ladies in White, a group comprised of the wives and mothers of the 2003 detainees, gathered at the Havana home of leader Laura Pollan to mark the anniversary of Zapata's death.
The women have marched through Havana every Sunday since the crackdown, demanding freedom for their loved ones.
A crowd of about 100 pro-government activists showed up outside Pollan's home to denounce them, throwing eggs and shouting slogans like "Cuba is not for sale!" ''Zapata is a delinquent!" and "This street belongs to Fidel!"
Members of the Ladies in White shouted "Freedom!" back at them from the window.
Authorities insist the pro-government demonstrations are spontaneous, but little is done to hide coordination with security officials.
"All we wanted was to get together and pay tribute to Zapata," said a Ladies in White leader, Bertha Soler. "We are praying, lighting candles and laying flowers."
Other Cuban opposition figures also marked the anniversary.
Yoani Sanchez, a blogger who has gained international recognition for her searing commentary about life on the island, posted a computer-altered photograph of a famous image overlooking Havana's Plaza of the Revolution. In place of revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara, it showed the face of Zapata.