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Government lifts its efforts to ignore 'minority' of protest

HAVANA: Nearly every eligible Cuban cast ballots in a vote the Communist Government claims is proof of the island's democracy.

But if headlines were made, it was by six elderly women standing under an ancient ficus tree, enduring seven hours of insults and obscenities for demanding political prisoners be freed.

Cuba complains the foreign media makes way too much of a small, divided dissident movement that has little sway with ordinary people. But the Government has helped draw attention to the women - known as the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White - by choosing, with no explanation, to start blocking their small weekly protests after seven years of tolerating them.

In another sign of crackdown, an independent journalist with ties to the Ladies in White was sentenced to 20 months in prison for allegedly mistreating her adult daughter.

Dania Virgen Garcia was arrested on April 20 and sentenced three days later after her daughter - apparently angry at her mother's criticism of the Communist Government - filed a complaint, said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, citing information from friends of the detained journalist.

Sanchez said he suspects - but cannot prove - that Garcia was targeted since she is a supporter of the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, whose regular Sunday march has been blocked by Cuban Government supporters for the past three weeks. He said he would need several days to obtain the necessary documents clarifying her arrest.

Garcia, who filed internet dispatches in defiance of Government controls on all Cuban media, was being held at a high-security women's prison in Havana and is unreachable, Sanchez said.

There was no answer yesterday at the home of Laura Pollan, a founding member of the Ladies in White. Cuba's Government had no immediate comment.

After years of obscurity, the women have become a cause celebre among Cuban-American exiles in the United States. The move to quash their protests has many in Washington wondering if Havana is trying to scuttle relations that seemed on the mend just months ago.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Fidel and Raul Castro could be creating a crisis because they don't want the US to drop the embargo, which she said gives them a convenient excuse for their revolution's failures.

Ricardo Alarcon, head of Cuba's Parliament, scoffed at the notion.

"Mrs Clinton is a very intelligent woman and I don't want to be rude with her," Alarcon said. "If she really believes the continuation of the embargo is in the benefit of our government, it's very simple for her to ask Congress to lift the embargo."

Even Fidel Castro made no comment on the election in a lengthy essay published shortly after the polls closed that railed against US military designs. The 83-year-old, who stepped down as president in 2008, voted in absentia and did not appear publicly.

For the media, the real drama was elsewhere, in a shady park in an upscale neighbourhood of Havana, where the Ladies in White stood without food or bathroom breaks through hour after hour of earsplitting harassment.

The group has demonstrated every Sunday since their husbands and sons were arrested in a March 2003 crackdown.

Their marches, down a leafy boulevard in the upscale Miramar neighborhood, used to draw little coverage and only a smattering of curious onlookers. State security kept watch from afar but rarely intervened. Usually, fewer than 10 protesters have shown up.

But the death of a jailed dissident hunger striker in February shone a new spotlight on Cuba's human rights record. The women marched for seven days in a row in different parts of the city in March. Cameras were there to show them roughly bundled on to a bus at one of the events.

That prompted sympathy protests led by Cuban-American pop icon Gloria Estefan in Miami and actor Andy Garcia in Los Angeles. Cuban officials bristled, denouncing what they saw as a global campaign to discredit the revolution.

Similar conflicts have been repeated in the past two weekends - with counter-protesters hurling abuse at the women for hours before they were put on to a bus. The counter-protests are not violent, though they are intimidating.

Last Sunday - the day of the municipal vote - the six Damas who turned up moved to the shade of a huge ficus tree, its trunk as large as a car and with vines hanging from its branches taking root in the soil below. They stood there for seven hours as government supporters shuttled in and out in shifts to shout at them.

This time, scores of foreign journalists were there to watch, even if Cuban passers-by paid little attention, some playing baseball, oblivious to the disturbance nearby.

- AP