(CNSNews.com) – On a day when President Obama’s handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Nelson Mandela memorial service triggered a social media storm, critics of the communist regime back home were reporting the arrest of pro-democracy activists and cutting of phone lines.
Among those reportedly detained were members of Damas de Blanco (“Ladies in White”), a group founded by relatives in response to a 2003 crackdown that saw 75 prominent dissidents arrested.
Ladies in White usually holds trademark silent protest marches dressed in white on Sundays, but it planned a special protest on Tuesday to mark Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the U.N.’s adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The dissident Cuban Patriotic Union also reported several detentions and police harassment of activists in various parts of the country.
“World Human Rights Day for us is 24 hours of clubs and threats,” Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez said in one of a series of Twitter messages throughout the day.
“Like in a bad horror movie, I am losing contact with colleagues and activists, their phones are blocked,” she tweeted at one point, then added that, “Right now thanks to cellphones and Twitter we manage to communicate what’s happening on Human Rights Day.”
Sanchez also commented on Castro’s participation in the Mandela memorial event at a sports stadium near Johannesburg, South Africa.
In his speech, the Cuban leader spoke of Mandela’s example, and said that “it is through dialogue and cooperation that discrepancies can be resolved and a civilized relationship established between those who think differently.”
“If practiced here what he preaches for other countries we’d have human rights,” Sanchez tweeted.
She also noted that Cuban state television did not immediately show the handshake between Castro and Obama, which occurred before they and four other foreign leaders delivered speeches in honor of Mandela.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who was born in Cuba, raised the brief Obama-Castro encounter during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing during which Secretary of State John Kerry was testifying on the Iran nuclear agreement.
“Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant,” she told Kerry.
“Raul Castro uses that hand to sign the orders to repress and jail democracy advocates – in fact, right now as we speak Cuban opposition leaders are being detained and are being beaten while trying to commemorate today, which is international Human Rights Day. They will feel disheartened when they see these photos.”
She asked Kerry to reaffirm to the Cuban people “that a handshake notwithstanding, the U.S. policy towards and cruel and sadistic Cuban dictatorship has not weakened.”
“Today is about honoring Nelson Mandela,” Kerry replied. “And the president’s at an international funeral with leaders from all over the world – he didn’t choose who was there, they are there to honor Mandela.”
He noted that Obama in his speech had referred to the need to uphold basic human rights, and he agreed, when asked by Ros-Lehtinen, that Castro was not doing so.
“Absolutely not, and you know my position on that.”
In an earlier statement marking Human Rights Day, Ros-Lehtinen said that 11 million Cubans have no rights or freedoms under the Castro regime.
“In my native land of Cuba, there are no human rights,” she said. “This past Sunday marked another day that the peaceful Ladies in White – mothers, sisters and aunts of unjustly held prisoners – were put under house arrest and detained simply for marching to church to pray for their loved ones.
“Today they again walked and tried to hold a ceremony to mark this important day and to call for a free Cuba, and they continue to inspire others who yearn for freedom and democracy.”
In his speech in Johannesburg, Obama chided “leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”
Castro was not the only leader present for whom the veiled criticism was applicable.
Others among the audience included Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang and leaders or senior representatives of a number of other countries ranked “not free” by Freedom House,” a Washington-based democracy watchdog, including China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Angola, Chad, Congo and Gambia.