Pro-government crowd taunts dissidents in Havana

About 200 government supporters crowded outside the house of Laura Pollan.

Havana: Pro-government demonstrators surrounded the home of a leading Cuban dissident on Friday, yelling insults at her and other opposition figures gathered inside to mark the anniversary of a notorious crackdown on dissent.

About 200 government supporters crowded outside the house of Laura Pollan, one of the leaders of the opposition group Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White. They called the dissidents "worms" and shouted slogans in support of brothers Fidel and Raul Castro.

The protesters refrained from shouting some of the more sexually offensive remarks sometimes directed at the group, which is made up of the wives and mothers of former and current political prisoners.

The Damas have been marching peacefully each Sunday since their loved ones were arrested in a government crackdown in March 2003 that put 75 activists, intellectuals and social commentators behind bars, most with long sentences on charges including treason.

The government made a landmark deal with the Roman Catholic Church in July to free all the political prisoners it still held from the sweep, a number that had dropped to 52 due to previous releases.

Just two prisoners remain — Felix Navarro and Jose Daniel Ferrer — and both are expected to be freed in the coming days or weeks.

The government has also released dozens of other prisoners, most of whom were jailed for violent but politically motivated crimes.

Most accepted a government offer to go into exile in Spain along with their families, but about a dozen prisoners from the 2003 sweep refused to go and have been allowed to return to their homes in Cuba.

Pollan said despite the releases, the dissidents are not in a celebratory mood. About 20 followers, as well as a number of former political prisoners, were holed up in her house on Friday.

They wore white and held photos of prisoners past and present, as well as a book written by Pollan`s husband, former prisoner Hector Maseda. The book, titled `Buried Alive`, recounts his time behind bars.

"We are not celebrating, we are remembering," she said, speaking loudly to be heard over the pro-government chants. "We still have two prisoners of conscience in prison."

Pollan said the Damas planned to attempt to march through the streets at some point Friday, but the dissidents later dropped the idea of trying to get past the pro-government crowd.

The government considers the dissidents to be common criminals. It says they take money from Washington to destabilise the island and bring down its socialist revolution.

While the Damas are mostly allowed to march and gather peacefully, the so-called act of repudiation that took place on Friday is not uncommon. The last one occurred on February 27, a day after state television aired a program denouncing the group and revealing the identity of a security agent who had infiltrated their ranks.

The government maintains the pro-government counter-demonstrations are spontaneous, but little is done to hide coordination between the crowds and state security officials who are also on the scene.

Bureau Report