Cuba's Ladies in White protest without incident

Associated Press
Berta Soler, center, leads the weekly march of the dissident group Ladies in White in front of Santa Rita church in Havana, Cuba, Sunday March 25, 2012. The Ladies in White held its customary weekly protest without incident a day before Pope Benedict XVI visits the island. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)
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HAVANA (AP) — A Cuban dissident group known as the Ladies in White held its customary weekly protest without incident Sunday on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the island.

The lack of any arrests at the march outside a Havana church and the absence of the pro-government crowds that sometimes curse the women and yell revolutionary chants indicated an apparent unspoken temporary truce, after dozens of dissidents were briefly detained last weekend.

The Ladies in White also appeared to be in a compromising mood, saying they would try to attend Benedict's Mass on Wednesday in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution but would not use it to advance their cause.

The group's leader, Bertha Soler, said they will not shout slogans or wear T-shirts bearing the image of the group's late co-founder, Laura Pollan.

"It is a sacred Mass," Soler said.

"You have to be respectful. One goes to temples to pray ... there will be no politics," she added.

Dozens of government opponents, including Soler and her husband, were rounded up last weekend and held briefly. At the time, Soler said authorities warned her the main thoroughfare in western Havana where the Ladies march each week would be off-limits.

But there were no detentions at the march Sunday after the group went to Mass. Nor were they harassed by pro-government crowds. Cuba say the Ladies and other dissidents are mercenaries bent on undermining the government's authority, and accuses them of taking U.S. money to engage in subversive acts.

The 30 or so protesters were outnumbered at least two-to-one by foreign journalists in town to cover Benedict's visit as they walked along the median of Quinta Avenida.

Soler said they are still hoping to meet with Benedict even for a minute to deliver a list of 46 people they consider political prisoners in Cuba and ask him to intercede on their behalf.

Vatican officials have said the pope does not plan to meet dissidents.

Cuba last year released the last of 75 government opponents from a 2003 crackdown on dissent and says it does not hold any political prisoners.

Last week Amnesty International designated four Cuban inmates as "prisoners of conscience," the only ones it recognizes on the island.

Soler also addressed the pontiff's comment on Friday that Marxist ideology is increasingly irrelevant today.

"Really, he's not wrong. ... Communism does not work here in Cuba," she said.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of a group that monitors detentions on the island, said 70 government opponents have been detained in the last four days, and at least 100 beggars were removed from the streets to keep them from being seen by foreign journalists and pilgrims coming for the pope.

The report could not be independently verified. The Cuban government declined to comment.

(This version CORRECTS attribution of government's no-comment, deleting reference to press center.)

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