More than 200 Cuban protesters were arrested over the weekend as the island prepared for President Obama's historic visit, which began yesterday. Dissidents of the human rights movement #TodosMarchamos, including the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) and Unión Patriótica de Cuba (Cuban Patriotic Union, UNPACU), gathered at Calle 26 and Avenida Tercera Sunday morning to peacefully protest the Castro regime.
Minutes later, the scene erupted. Anti-Castro protesters, holding symbolic palm leaves, sat on the ground while Castro supporters chanted, "Fidel." Police forcefully arrested demonstrators, pushing them onto public buses used to transport the dissidents. Videos from the protest show officers carrying, dragging, and pulling protesters against their will. They were taken to VIVAC, a notorious processing center in Havana, where they were detained without explanation and released eight hours later.
The leader of Damas de Blanco, Berta Soler, and political artists Danilo "El Sexto" Maldonado Machado and Gorki Aguilar were among the dissidents arrested Sunday afternoon. The three activists were recently in Miami supporting Maldonado's gallery opening in South Beach.
"They dragged us and forced us onto the buses," says Maldonado, who returned to Cuba just last Monday.
Since returning to Cuba, the artist has been streaming videos on Facebook using the temperamental public Wi-fi, documenting his daily life on the streets of Vedado. In one video, a security officer smacks Maldonado's arm to push away the camera and insists the artist cannot film another person on the street.
"They told me to stop filming my live videos," says Maldonado, who has already filmed another video since being released. "They don’t want provocation."
Damas de Blanco member María Cristina Labrada told Cuban news outlet Diario De Cuba that they will continue protesting Monday and Tuesday at Gandhi Park.
"If we're not there, it's because we're detained," she says.
An American president has not visited Cuba since Calvin Coolidge traveled to the island in 1928, but Obama is determined to thaw tense relations with the country. Dissidents and Miami officials are calling on Obama to use this meeting as an opportunity to confront the Castro regime's human rights injustices.
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"The whole world is watching what Obama does right now," Maldonado says. "Fidel is not a boss. He robbed a country. He’s not a leader."
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado told New Times last month that Obama's trip could be a positive push for Democracy and dissidents' rights.
"It all depends on his public statements. If he does like the pope and doesn't even mention the opposition, it would be very disappointing, because the leader of the free world has the duty to defend democracy in the world," Regalado said. "If he does come strong asking for democracy and freedom and meeting with the real dissidents and not just getting coffee and doughnuts at the embassy, people in Miami will appreciate that."
The country has been hyping up Obama's visit for the past week. Before arriving, Obama broke the ice during a phone call with Cuban comic Pánfilo by asking, "¿Que bola?" Since arriving, the president has eaten at a paladar (a privately owned restaurant) and toured Old Havana, a predominantly tourist-driven neighborhood. He's scheduled to address the public Tuesday. Meanwhile, dissidents have been told to remain at home or expect to be detained.