Dozens of dissidents have been detained in a “wave of political repression” ahead of a major international summit in Cuba, activists said on Sunday.
The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) summit, hosting heads of state from across the region, provides opportunities for dissidents in the Americas’ only one-party communist-ruled state to try to raise their profiles, and bend world leaders’ ears.
“The government is carrying out a wave of political repression ahead of the summit,” warned dissident Elizardo Sanchez.
One dissident who planned to attend an event on the summit’s sidelines, Jose Daniel Ferrer, was arrested on Friday after meeting with European diplomats, Sanchez said.
“As of now, he is technically missing. No one knows where he is,” said Sanchez, who heads the outlawed Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
Dissident Guillermo Farinas said was placed under house arrest to keep him from taking part in an opposition forum on the summit sidelines. “Today is the third day they won’t let me go out,” Farinas said from his home in Santa Clara, 280 kilometres east of Havana.
“There is a police operative who stays a block away from my house during the day but is in front of it at night,” he said.
Farinas, who was awarded the European parliament’s Sakharov prize in 2010, is a veteran of hunger strikes seeking political opening on the communist-ruled island. The 52-year-old psychologist said he had planned to take part in a “democratic forum about international relations and human rights” which Cuban dissidents sought to hold on Tuesday in Havana.
The meeting is timed to coincide with the opening of the two-day summit for the Celac, which has 33 members including every nation in the Western Hemisphere except the US and Canada.
Meanwhile, the higher-profile dissident group Ladies in White, made up of political prisoners’ relatives, said that as many as 100 of its members have been arrested to keep them from taking part in the dissident forum. The Ladies in White, who won the 2005 Sakharov prize, were out on the streets in Havana marching as they do each week.
Police strength had been boosted discreetly but 56 of the group’s members marched on Fifth Avenue.
“More than 100 members of the Ladies in White have been called in by the police since Friday, taken to police stations,” said the group’s leader Berta Soler. “They have been threatened, warned by the force of repression, State Security, that today [Sunday], they should not be here on Fifth Avenue.
“The people who are not here [marching], are all being detained,” she added.
The Ladies in White are the only group whose demonstrations are approved by the government. President Raul Castro, 82, agreed to the arrangement in 2010 with mediation from the Roman Catholic Church.
Leaders of the fledgling regional bloc – formed in 2011 as a force for integration and a counterbalance to their most powerful neighbour, the United States – began arriving in Havana on Sunday.
By Sunday, Presidents Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and several foreign ministers were already in Havana for the meeting. Lower-level officials began meeting at the weekend and foreign ministers were scheduled to take the stage on Monday.
“From this summit will emerge more social policies for the liberation of our peoples,” Morales said at Havana’s international airport.
Nobody was a bigger advocate for the bloc than the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an outspoken critic of Washington seen by many as the standard-bearer for the region’s political left before he succumbed to cancer in March last year.
“It is the first summit after the death of Hugo Chavez, the great driving force” behind Celac, said Eduardo Bueno, a professor of Latin American studies at Iberoamericana University in Mexico. “I think they are going to be measuring their possibilities for the future.”
The bloc was born out of discontent with the Organisation of American States, which some see as dominated by Washington’s interests.
In recent years, Chavez and others, including conservative presidents and US allies such as Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, were united in their frustration that the OAS excluded Cuba, which was expelled in 1962.
Cuba’s suspension ended in 2009 with US consent. Raul Castro’s government applauded the move but quickly said it had no interest in being part of a group it calls a mechanism to effect US regional dominance.
Miguel Tinker Salas, a historian of Latin America at Pomona College, said Celac’s existence puts pressure on the Washington-based OAS to respond to the interests of the region’s countries if it is to remain relevant.
“The fact that nations as diverse as Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico or Brazil participate [in Celac] ... shows they give importance to this alternative process of integration,” Tinker Salas said.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto is among the heads of state coming to Havana.
Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the OAS, was invited to the summit as an observer. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also confirmed his attendance.
Officially the summit will focus on poverty and social inequality, though side discussions could deal with areas such as trade and migration.
But it’s yet to be seen whether Celac can become effective at solving regional issues, and analysts said the group needs to prove it’s more than an empty forum.
“The summits are in themselves symbolic,” Tinker Salas said. “They discuss agendas and themes, but their implementation is up to the member states.”