Arrests at Cuban dissident's funeral condemned
The White House yesterday condemned the arrest of dozens of Cuban pro-democracy activists who were mourning the death of leading dissident Oswaldo Payá, saying it showed the “climate of repression” in communist-ruled Cuba.
Mr Payá (60), leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, and fellow dissident Harold Cepero died in a car crash in eastern Granma province on Sunday.
The cause of the crash is officially under investigation.
As activists, diplomats and friends left a funeral ceremony at a Havana church to accompany Mr Payá’s family to the cemetery on Tuesday, police herded dozens of dissidents who were chanting “freedom, freedom” on to a bus and drove them away.
“Unfortunately, these arrests provide a stark demonstration of the climate of repression in Cuba,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement. “We call on the Cuban government to respect internationally recognised fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech.”
US president Barack Obama has said the US will not lift its five-decade embargo on Cuba until Havana implements democratic reforms, something it has resisted. But he has eased some restrictions, including rules on family remittances and travel.
Mr Obama has no room to soften the US stance on Cuba in an election year. Opposition to such moves runs strong among US conservatives, particularly the anti-Castro community in Florida, a key election battleground state.
At Mr Payá’s funeral, Cardinal Jaime Ortega paid tribute to his “political vocation” and religious faith. “Oswaldo had a clear political vocation and this, like a good Christian, did not take him from his faith and religious duties,” Cardinal Ortega told the packed memorial Mass at a church in the Havana suburb of Cerro, where the civil rights activist lived.
“Quite the contrary, he always looked to his faith for inspiration in his political activity.”
The cardinal announced that Pope Benedict XVI had sent a message of condolence to the family.
A devout Catholic who was sent to a labour camp in the 1960s for his religious beliefs, Mr Payá overcame intimidation and harassment to build Cuba’s first nationwide opposition initiative, the Varela Project, which gathered 25,000 signatures for a referendum on one-party rule.
The petition drive was rejected by the government in 2002, but Mr Payá emerged as the leading advocate of peaceful democratic change in Cuba.