Image: Members of the Ladies in White struggle with pro-government supporters in Havana
Enrique De La Osa  /  Reuters
Members of the "Ladies in White," a group made up of family members of imprisoned dissidents, struggle with pro-government supporters in Havana on Sunday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/26/2010 4:30:35 AM ET 2010-04-26T08:30:35

Cuba's dissident "Ladies in White" were harassed and corralled by some 50 government supporters for seven hours on Sunday as they tried to march for the freedom of political prisoners.

Also on Sunday, Cubans voted in municipal elections touted as proof of democracy on the communist-led island.

The prolonged "act of repudiation" against the six women, who could barely be seen in the engulfing crowd of about 100 people, took some of the luster off a day the Cuban government hoped would counter an authoritarian image it blames on its enemies abroad.

The confrontation started when the activists emerged from Mass and were told that they could not march down upscale Fifth Avenue because they had no police permit, according to NBC News in Havana. 

A government negotiator convinced the women to leave the park after the seven-hour standoff with the pro-Castro crowd, which was backed by some 50 security agents. The relatives of dissidents imprisoned since 2003 were eventually "escorted" onto a bus and taken to their respective homes, according to NBC.

This is the third week in a row that the women have been stopped from holding their Sunday protest, and signals an escalation in the government's clampdown on the group, whose weekly marches for seven years have made them the leading symbol of Cuban opposition.

Enviable example of democracy
Cuban officials say the local elections are an enviable example of democracy for the rest of the world because of the high turnout and the populist purity of the process.

"In no other part of the world do as many participate in elections as in Cuba," said Cuban vice president Esteban Lazo.

"The delegates are chosen by their own people, who nominate the best and most capable," he told reporters after voting.

Cuban television showed President Raul Castro casting his vote in Havana, but ailing former leader Fidel Castro, 83, did not make an appearance.

An electoral official said she had received a ballot from the elder Castro, who has not been seen in public since July 2006, and she was shown dropping it into a ballot box.

"He voted," she said with a smile.

An hour before the polls closed, officials said 93 percent of Cuba's 8.4 million voters had cast a vote for delegates to local assemblies that deal with nuts-and-bolts issues of municipal government.

The Communist Party is the only legal party in Cuba and the nation's top leaders are not directly elected by the people.

Critics say the turnout is high because Cubans must vote or face problems with local authorities.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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