Activist arrests revive US-Cuba tensions

A Cuban crackdown on dissident activists caused a new rift Wednesday with the United States, the first diplomatic scuffle since this month`s historic announcement of a renewal in ties.

AFP| Last Updated: Jan 01, 2015, 11:18 AM IST

Havana: A Cuban crackdown on dissident activists caused a new rift Wednesday with the United States, the first diplomatic scuffle since this month`s historic announcement of a renewal in ties.

Authorities arrested more than 30 dissidents Tuesday to stop them from attending an open mic session convened for Cubans to speak out about their future, said Elizardo Sanchez, the head of the officially banned Cuban Human Rights Commission.

In a stern reaction, Washington condemned Havana`s "lack of respect" for human rights.

"We are deeply concerned about the latest reports of detentions and arrests by Cuban authorities of peaceful civil society members and activists," the US State Department said in a statement.

"We strongly condemn the Cuban government`s continued harassment and repeated use of arbitrary detention, at times with violence, to silence critics, disrupt peaceful assembly and freedom (of) expression, and intimidate citizens."

The crackdown is the first since US President Barack Obama and Cuban counterpart Raul Castro announced two weeks ago that the two countries would revive diplomatic ties severed during the Cold War and move to ease the five-decade US trade embargo.

The arrests came after a Cuban performance artist had invited her compatriots to share their dreams for the island`s future at a "participatory performance" in Revolution Square, an iconic plaza in front of Cuba`s government headquarters.

Seven of the arrested dissidents remain in jail, while the rest have been released, Sanchez said.

The artist who organized the event, Tania Bruguera, was reportedly among those still in jail.

She was seen inside a Havana jail wearing a grey prison uniform, reported independent news portal 14ymedio -- run by leading dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, who was herself placed under house arrest for part of Tuesday.

The website cited Yoani Sanchez`s husband and editor, Reinaldo Escobar, who said he was jailed for several hours alongside Bruguera before being freed Tuesday night.

Bruguera`s sister Deborah, who lives in Italy, wrote on her Facebook page that authorities had come to their mother`s residence in Havana and taken her sister away.

"I finally managed to talk with my mom, who`s very worried," she wrote.

"She told me it was two police officers and a soldier who took her, saying that they would be back in an hour, that they just wanted to `talk.` She`s starting to get seriously worried because it`s been more than nine hours of `talking.`"

Cuban authorities have not confirmed the arrests. State media have so far not reported on the subject.Bruguera, 46, is known for her politically provocative work. She trained in Cuba and the United States and splits her time between those countries and France.

In 2009, she held a similar event at the Havana Biennial Art Exhibition, offering museum-goers an open mic to express their views of the Castro government.

About 20 activists and numerous foreign correspondents turned up for Tuesday`s open mic event, but Bruguera never arrived.

Her cell phone was out of service and her apartment guarded by plainclothes police who refused to allow anyone through, AFP correspondents said.

The State Department said that as part of the process of normalizing ties with Cuba, the US would "continue to press the Cuban government to uphold its international obligations and to respect the rights of Cubans to peacefully assemble and express their ideas and opinions."

But the crackdown will likely fuel criticism of the US-Cuban rapprochement from those who oppose it in the Cuban exile community and in Congress.

Obama wants Congressional cooperation in lifting the 54-year-old embargo.

But several lawmakers, led by Senator Marco Rubio who is Cuban-American, have dismissed the change in Cuba policy as appeasing a dictator.

The first high-level meeting on restoring ties is scheduled for late January in Havana. The US assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, Roberta Jacobson, has confirmed she will attend.