Havana (AFP) -
Cuban security forces foiled a planned mass protest on Monday, with police flooding Havana's streets and prominent dissidents arrested or confined to their homes to prevent them from staging the banned rights gathering.
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 reportedly been confined to their homes by the security forces, with 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.
On social networks, some posted photos of themselves dressed in white in the streets, but the call to turn out en masse did not seem to have caught on.
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez mocked a 'failed operation' while the Communist government accused the United States of wanting to destabilize Cuba through the demonstration, which was calling for the release of political prisoners.
'Apparently some of my colleagues in Washington dressed for nothing, for their party which did not take place,' he quipped in a video posted on Facebook, because 'the script was not good and the staging even worse.'
The opposition had 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.
Calls to join Monday's demonstrations had been widely disseminated on social media, urging Cubans to turn out en masse to press home demands for improved human rights and democracy as well as 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 injured and 1,270 arrested in a country where displays of public discontent are rare and 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 were urged to take to the streets dressed in white.
The group, founded by playwright Yunior Garcia, claims to have some 30,000 members inside and outside Cuba.
Garcia saw his plans to protest solo in Havana on Sunday blocked by the authorities, and on Monday was 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.
Late last week 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, Washington announced further sanctions for alleged rights abuses.