HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban police detained at least four political opponents on Tuesday, including the husband of prominent blogger Yoani Sanchez, hours before a performance artist planned to stage an unauthorized open microphone event, dissidents said.
They would be the highest profile detentions since Cuba and the United States agreed on Dec. 17 to normalize diplomatic relations and put behind more than five decades of hostility.
President Barack Obama said then that Cubans should not face harassment or arrest for expressing their views and that his government would continue to monitor human rights on the communist-ruled island.
Sanchez said on Twitter that police detained her husband Reinaldo Escobar and dissident leader Eliecer Avila outside her home in Havana, taking them away handcuffed in a patrol car.
Escobar is editor-in-chief of the dissident news and opinion website 14ymedio.com and Avila is the leader of the opposition group Somos Mas (We Are More).
Other dissident leaders said at least two more government opponents were being held by police, and others appeared to be restricted to their homes.
President Raul Castro has praised Obama for changing U.S. policy on Cuba but he also warned that opponents to Cuba’s government may try to undermine progress toward better relations.
A government official could not immediately confirm the reports of detentions on Tuesday. Officials had denounced the planned open microphone event as a political provocation.
The organizer of the event, Tania Bruguera, could not be reached by telephone in Havana. Her sister in Italy said she had lost contact with Bruguera on Monday, and nobody answered the door at the Havana residence where Bruguera was staying.
Reached at her home, Sanchez declined to comment on reports from another dissident leader that she was being held inside her home.
A Reuters reporter saw a police car with two officers and an Interior Minister official parked outside her apartment building.
“I have spoken to Yoani and she says her intention is not to confront them,” said Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of another dissident group, the Cuban Patriotic Union.
The leader of the dissident group Ladies in White said some of their activists also had police stationed outside their homes, that another was detained, and another detained and released.
Bruguera planned the open microphone event at Havana’s Revolution Square as a test of the government’s tolerance for dissent. Cuban officials denied a permit but she pledged to go ahead with it.
No event took place at the appointed hour of 3 p.m. (2000 GMT).
Cuban police often detain political opponents for a few hours or days and then release them.
The deal on renewing diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States was reached after 18 months of secret talks.
It included a prisoner swap in which the United States freed three Cuban spies and Cuba agreed to release U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross, a Cuban who spied for Washington, and 53 people who the United States considers political prisoners.
So far, none of those 53 have been identified and dissident groups say none of their activists have been released since the Dec. 17 announcement.
Obama’s critics in the United States have complained that Cuba does not deserve a softer U.S. policy as long as it continues to control the media and repress political opponents under a one-party system.
“Given that political arrests continue and that Yoani Sanchez just tweeted that her husband was arrested this morning, how will the Obama administration engage on these issues?” Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who supports a hard line against Havana, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Reporting by Daniel Trotta, Nelson Acosta, Rosa Tania Valdés and Enrique de la Osa; Editing by Kieran Murray and Alan Crosby