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Archbishop of Havana meets with Ladies in White leaders

| Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, 10:36 p.m.

MIAMI — For the first time since being appointed nearly 10 months ago to the highest Catholic post in Cuba, Havana Archbishop Juan de la Caridad Garcia Rodriguez met privately with two representatives of the Ladies in White Movement, a civic organization of female family members of political prisoners.

Movement leader Berta Soler and Maria Cristina Labrada asked the archbishop to issue a public statement of solidarity on behalf of the Catholic Church. They also asked him to advocate for an end to repression carried out by the Raul Castro government against activists across the island.

“The request was for him to make a pronouncement before the Cuban government, that the Catholic Church not be silent, and that it was very important for violence to cease and there be religious freedom,” Soler told el Nuevo Herald via telephone from Havana. Soler said she was hopeful because the archbishop was “very receptive” and said he would transmit the information to the Cuban government, although he could not guarantee a response.

The Catholic Church has had an important role as an intermediary between the opposition, civil society, and Castro's government. A similar meeting in 2010 between representatives of the Ladies in White and Cardinal Jaime Ortega resulted in the release of political prisoners jailed during the so-called “Black Spring” in 2003.

The gathering, which took place Wednesday, comes in the midst of uncertainty about the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Ortega, who served as archbishop prior to Garcia Rodriguez's appointment in April, also was an intermediary in secret negotiations between former President Obama's administration and the Castro government to restore diplomatic relations.

Since Obama's visit to Havana last year, many Cuban activists have complained of an increase in harassment and detentions carried out by Cuban authorities.

Soler and Labrada told Garcia Rodriguez that members of their Ladies in White group can no longer attend Mass because they are systematically detained by police. The group had taken to marching peacefully for human rights along Fifth Avenue following church services at the Santa Rita Church in Miramar, a suburb of Havana.

Several members also reported that they were forced to abandon the movement after government agents threatened them with the imprisonment of their relatives.

“We told him that although we cannot get to Mass, it's not because we do not want to, it's because the Cuban government imprisons us, not just on Sundays, but even during weekdays,” Soler said. For months, she said, activists have not been able to hold their weekly Sunday marches.

“We cannot leave our homes, or the headquarters (of the organization in the Lawton neighborhood) because the police are already there,” she said. “No fewer than 30 women in the city of Havana are detained on Sundays and no less than 60 or 70 across the entire island.”

President Trump has promised that he will reach a “better agreement” with Havana and a White House spokesman said that the policy toward Cuba is under review and will prioritize the issue of human rights.

The Trump administration already has stirred up foreign policy, most recently against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Cuba's main economic and political ally.

The Cuban government, meanwhile, has been cautious in its statements about the Trump presidency and in late January offered to continue negotiations with the Trump administration to further improve relations.

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