On Sunday, the wives, mothers, sisters, and other relatives of political dissidents – collectively known as Las Damas de Blanco – gathered in Havana to peacefully protest, just as they have done for the last 46 weeks. Once again, Las Damas met after the Iglesia de Santa Rita’s mass ended, but this Sunday was different. Barack Obama and his family had just touched down in Cuba – marking the first time a sitting president visits the Caribbean island since Calvin Coolidge’s 1928 visit.
The United States and Cuba first announced they would work to re-establish relations in December 2014. By August 14, the U.S. reopened its embassy in Cuba after 54 years, and just in the last week, the Obama administration announced that citizens can travel to Cuba under the “people to people” category, which affords travelers the chance to customize their trips around their own interests.
Yesterday, President Obama made history. For the first time ever, Air Force One touched down in Havana, Cuba: http://go.wh.gov/sBvtMt #CubaVisit
Posted by The White House on Monday, March 21, 2016
The women, who usually end up in jail for protesting, expected the government to loosen their rules because of Barack’s visit. However, nearly 300 Castro supporters organized a counter-protest, and about 50 members of Las Damas de Blanco and other human rights group ended up in handcuffs, according to Vice News. Footage shows people shouting “Cuba si, Castro no” as a larger group encircles them.
#URGENTE – A un par de horas de la llegada de Obama a Cuba, régimen castrista desata ola de arrestos y represión contra disidentes y defensores de Derechos Humanos en Cuba.#ObamaEnCuba
Posted by Telemundo 51 on Sunday, March 20, 2016
“For us, it’s very important that we do this so President Obama knows that there are women here fighting for the liberty of political prisoners,” said one of the group’s leaders, Berta Soler, according to USA Today. “And he needs to know that we are here being repressed simply for exercising our rights to express ourselves and manifest in a non-violent way.”
By Sunday night, Berta, Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado, and musician Gorki Águila were released from jail, but as of this morning, they didn’t know if any of their members remained jailed, Antena 3 reports. Berta hasn’t spoken to all of the member of Las Damas, but some told her the government has placed them under surveillance.
Obama is set to meet with dissidents on Tuesday, but prior to his visit, dissidents reported the Cuban government told them to stay home instead, according to the Los Angeles Times. Elizardo Sanchez said dissidents planned to attend regardless of what the government said, but for many in Cuba, the arrests of the 50 people sends a message.
Violentos arrestos en La Habana, #Cuba a sólo horas de la llegada del presidente #ObamaEnCuba
Posted by Marti Noticias on Sunday, March 20, 2016
“Right now what you see is preventative repression, so it does not occur to anyone to say anything to Obama while he is here,” Sanchez told The New York Times.