Havana (AFP) -
The Cuban government arrested prominent dissidents on Monday hours before a planned rally that organizers have vowed to hold despite it being banned by authorities.
Friends and family members said those detained included opposition figure Manuel Cuesta Morua, 58, the leader of the Ladies in White rights movement Berta Soler, and her husband Angel Moya -- a former political prisoner.
Another government critic, Guillermo Farinas, has been detained since Friday, and numerous protest organizers and independent journalists have reported been confined to their homes by the security forces, and their internet cut.
As Cubans observed a tense countdown to the planned 3:00 pm (2000 GMT) kickoff of rallies called in Havana and six provinces, police were deployed in large numbers on the streets of the capital.
Along the city's seaside esplanade, armed police in uniform gathered on nearly every corner, while others in civilian dress patrolled the squares and parks.
Cuba's opposition has said the '15N' (November 15) gathering would go ahead despite an official ban and the risk of criminal prosecution, with hundreds still in jail after July protests that were put down by the armed forces.
The government claims protest organizers are seeking regime change with the backing of the United States, which maintains sanctions against the communist island.
Calls to join the Monday's demonstrations were widely disseminated on social media, urging Cubans to turn out en masse to press home demands for improved human rights and democracy and the freeing of what the organizers term political prisoners.
Spontaneous July rallies, fueled by growing anger at economic hardship and growing demands for 'freedom,' left one person dead, dozens of injured and 1,270 arrested in a country where displays of public discontent are rare, and potentially risky.
More than 650 are still in jail, according to rights group Cubalex.
- 'Defend the revolution' -
Under the banner of a group named Archipelago, protesters have been called to take to the streets dressed in white.
The group, founded by Yunior Garcia, claims to have some 30,000 members inside and outside Cuba.
Garcia saw his plans to protest in Havana solo on Sunday blocked by the authorities, and was on Monday still prevented from leaving his house by state security agents, an AFP journalist witnessed.
The showdown came as children returned to school Monday after months of closure due to the coronavirus outbreak, and coincided with the arrival of the first tourists -- a mainstay of Cuba's economy -- after the reopening of borders.
'This is how Cuba dawns on November 15, with more than 700,000 pioneers in the classrooms; receiving friends, family and tourists; relaunching productive activity; decreasing COVID cases,' President Miguel Diaz-Canel tweeted on Monday, without mentioning the planned protest.
On Friday, Diaz-Canel had warned that his supporters were 'ready to defend the revolution' in the face of 'an imperial strategy (of the United States) to try to destroy the revolution.'
Cuban officials, who deny holding political prisoners, consider the opposition to be illegitimate and allege it is financed by Washington.
- 'Wave of repression' -
On Sunday, the United States urged Cuban authorities to 'respect Cubans' rights, by allowing them to peacefully assemble and use their voices without fear of government reprisal or violence, and by keeping Internet and telecommunication lines open for the free exchange of information.'
In an open letter published Sunday, dozens of Cuban and foreign NGOs denounced 'the wave of repression that has intensified against the organizers of the protest and citizens who identify with the movement.'
According to independent Cuban media, prosecutors have been requesting sentences of up to 30 years for some of the protestors arrested in July.
Cuba is experiencing its worst economic crisis since 1993, aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic and sanctions tightened under former US president Donald Trump.
Incumbent Joe Biden had promised during his election campaign to reverse certain of his predecessor's punitive actions against Cuba, in return for human rights reforms.
But after the government clampdown on protests, the United States announced further sanctions for alleged rights abuses.