Cuba freed some leading dissidents on Wednesday after holding them overnight to thwart an unauthorized demonstration in a crackdown that has tested its detente with the United States.
Police detained several dissidents on Tuesday and kept others under virtual house arrest ahead of an open microphone protest that was to have taken place outside government headquarters in Havana's Revolution Square.
The detentions were typical of how Cuba breaks up opposition protests but took on greater significance as they came just two weeks after U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced on December 17 they would restore diplomatic ties and end decades of hostility.
Reinaldo Escobar, the husband of prominent dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, was released late on Tuesday night.
Tania Bruguera, a performance artist who organized the event and was held for more than 24 hours, was returned home on Wednesday afternoon.
“I'm not doing this as a dissident, I'm doing it as a normal person,” she told Reuters from her mother's apartment overlooking the sea in her first interview after being freed.
“I'm not a counterrevolutionary, like they say. I'm from a revolutionary family.... I'm going to continue the project.”
Cuba's communist government had labeled the event a “political provocation” and denied Bruguera a permit.
The dissident Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation said more than 50 Cubans were detained and that about 15 of them were still being held on Wednesday afternoon.
“At the same the Cuban government is normalizing its relations with the U.S. government, it has not decided to normalize relations with the people of Cuba,” said Elizardo Sanchez, who heads the commission.
“We don't think there will a cause-and-effect relationship between renewing diplomatic relations with the United States and an improvement of human rights in Cuba.”
Cuban officials do not reveal information about police activity, and Reuters could not verify the numbers of detentions.
Obama's policy shift on Cuba has drawn some opposition inside the United States, led by Cuban-American senators Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez.
They both criticized Obama anew after the detentions in Havana, saying Cuba now has even less incentive to improve its human rights record and asking how the president would respond.
The U.S. State Department condemned the Cuban actions but gave no indication that they would derail a high-level visit to Havana in January for talks on restoring diplomatic ties.
More stumbling blocks could be expected.
“Obama and Castro are now partners in a way, and they have to be proactive if they want to prevent the spoilsports from taking control of the agenda,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former Cuban government analyst who is now a U.S.-based academic.
He said opponents in Cuba and the United States “are acting together.”
Obama has said Cubans should not face harassment or arrest for expressing their views, and that Washington will continue to monitor human rights on the island.
Castro has applauded Obama for changing U.S. policy but says Cuba will not change its one-party system.
He also warned two weeks ago that “virulent critics,” including Cuban-Americans in the U.S. Congress and Cuban exiles, would “do everything possible to sabotage the process, without ruling out provocative actions of any kind.”
Under the deal with the United States, Cuba agreed to release 53 people described by Washington as political prisoners, but they have not yet been freed and dissidents complain they do not even know who is on the list.