By Patricia Zapor, Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- With the clock ticking down to Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba March 26-28, efforts to ramp up peaceful public protests of government policies were being met by government crackdowns.

More than 70 members of the "Damas de Blanco," or Ladies in White, were arrested during protests March 17 and 18 as they attempted to stage marches from the home of their late leader Laura Pollan to mark the anniversary of a 2003 crackdown on dissidents known as Cuba's Black Spring. They were released a few hours later, according to wire service reports.

The government's actions were decried by a spokesman for the National Security Council in a White House statement and by a Cuban-American member of Congress in a speech on the floor of the House.

For years, the Ladies in White have held weekly silent marches to protest the imprisonment of their husbands, sons and brothers. The last of the prisoners were released last spring in an agreement negotiated by Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino. But the protests of government restrictions have continued and the women have sought an audience with the pope during his visit.

Tommy Vietor, National Security Council spokesman, said in a March 19 statement that the detention of the women "underscores the disdain of Cuban authorities for the universal rights of the Cuban people. The quiet dignity of the 'Damas' stands in stark contrast with the acts of those who are standing in the way of the basic aspirations of the Cuban people."

Vietor also called for authorities to "abandon their tactics of intimidation and harassment to stifle peaceful dissent." He said President Barack Obama and the American people "remain steadfast in standing with the 'Damas' and other courageous voices in Cuban civil society who demonstrate the Cuban people's desire to freely determine their country's future."

Speaking March 20 on the House floor, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., called on the pope to "publicly support the aspirations of the enslaved Cuban people to exercise their God-given rights."

She decried the Cuban government's use of short-term detention "in order to intimidate and silence the voices of these brave Cubans standing up against tyranny and oppression."

"It is my hope that Pope Benedict will meet with these brave dissidents and shine a light on the struggles of the Cuban people who are living under the rule of the oppressive Castro brothers," she said. "I urge the Catholic Church to express its support and solidarity with the internal peaceful opposition and hear the voices of the dissidents who are yearning for freedom."

The Miami Herald reported that the Ladies in White were told they would no longer be allowed to hold their weekly public protests because the prisoners had been released. They also were told they could not stage a planned protest outside the papal Mass in Havana March 28, though they would be allowed to attend the Mass, according to the Herald.

Meanwhile, attempts to stage protests in Catholic churches elsewhere in the country have been met with government and church opposition.

The website of the Cuban bishops' conference March 17 posted a detailed statement from Holguin Bishop Emilio Aranguren Echeverria explaining the circumstances under which he had 18 people ejected from St. Isidore Cathedral after they tried to occupy the church as a political statement.

Bishop Aranguren said he told the people who attempted to stay inside the church past its normal hours that their protest, particularly their conversation, use of cellphones and cameras, was an inappropriate use of the building.

A similar effort to occupy the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity in Havana a week earlier ended with the removal of 13 people who had settled into the church for more than 48 hours, disrupting daily Masses. In a March 15 statement, Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the Havana Archdiocese, said the people left voluntarily after being assured by Cardinal Ortega and government authorities that they would be allowed to return to their homes without incident. 

—from Catholic News Service