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Cuba Dissidents Report Arrests Ahead Of Gathering

File photo, Havana, Cuba, April 12, 2014. Ramon Espinosa / AP

Dozens gathered at Havana’s Revolutionary Square for a protest despite a strong police presence and the reports of early-morning arrests of at least 4 dissidents and independent journalists by Cuban authorities prior to the event.

The artist and organizer of the event, Tania Bruguera, has been reportedly missing since early morning hours, according to relatives and friends. Her sister, Deborah Bruguera, posted on her Facebook page that “those who know Tania know she must have fought hard to be taken out from her home.”

Bruguera came up with the idea of a “performance” after the historic announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would reestablish diplomatic ties. The idea of the gathering dubbed #YoTambienExijo, which in English means #IAlsoDemand was to have a microphone set up at the Square so participants could take turns expressing their views about the future of the island in one minute.

But several well-known figures who have been critical of the government were arrested throughout the island hours before the protest was to take place. Cuban dissident and founder of the digital news website “14ymedio” Yoani Sanchez tweeted in the early afternoon that her husband and editor-in-chief of the website Reinaldo Escobar was arrested along with dissident leader Eliecer Avila as they walked out of her apartment building. Sanchez reported is currently under house arrest.

Antonio Rodiles, director of the civic project Estado de Sats was also arrested. Opposition activist Angel Juan Moya reported the arrest of Ladies In White member Aliuska Gomez and her son and tweeted a picture of what he called "repression against human rights activists."

When the U.S. and Cuba agreed to normalize relations on December 17, President Obama stated Cubans should not face harassment or arrest for expressing their views and that his government would monitor human rights on the island.

These are the highest profile detentions that have taken place since Obama’s remarks.

In Miami, dozens gathered for a simultaneous protest in front of the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami. Orlando Luis Pardo, a writer and blogger, who assisted the protest read a letter Bruguera wrote to Pope Francis who was a mediator in the US-Cuba thaw. The letter asked for his blessing and requested he not take his eyes off the island now that she’s trying to mobilize the Cuban people.

“Tania Bruguera wanted Cubans to stop being afraid to speak up,” said Pardo, who came from Cuba in 2013 and knows Bruguera personally from his time in Cuba and New York. He added that Bruguera exposed the Cuban government as ‘violators of fundamental rights.’ “If people cannot express themselves for one minute, what can we hope for in the future.”

Rosa Maria Paya, the daughter of prominent Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya who died in a suspicious car crash in 2012 was also present at the Miami gathering.

Pardo and others read tweets from people that poured in from around the world with the hashtag #YoTambienExijo in support of the “performance” in Havana. Many were demanding human rights, freedom of expression, political freedom and even the right to eat red meat, something outlawed in Cuba.

Bruguera, a well respected artist in Cuba and internationally, who has been living in New York for the past three years arrived in Havana on December 26th to begin arrangements for the rally. Cuba’s National Mixed Media Arts Council denied support for the artist’s performance, saying the action would negatively impact public opinion at a key time for negotiation between the Cuban and U.S. governments. The Cuban Union of Artists and Writers advised its members not to take part in the rally stating Bruguera is a “CIA Agent” and a “mercenary” and have said she is an opportunist seeking attention. Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police denied Bruguera demonstration permits.