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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Cuba's Communist government has traditionally shown little tolerance for dissent. But since Raul Castro took over the country's leadership from his brother, there has been some openness toward public criticism. Still, for those who go too far or organize against the government, the response is swift and sometimes ugly.

Nick Miroff reports from Havana.

Unidentified Group: (foreign language spoken)

NICK MIROFF: This is the closest thing to a public protest against the Cuban government. Six older women dressed in white walk out of their Havana church after Sunday Mass and attempt to march, carrying pink flowers. They're part of a larger group that has been doing this every week since 2003, when their loved ones were jailed in a political crackdown. But this month, things have changed. The women emerge from the church and start their march. A plainclothes government agent orders them to stop, and when they argue, he walks away. Then a crowd of government supporters charges in.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Woman: Libertad.

Unidentified Group: Libertad, libertad, libertad.

MIROFF: The six women yell, freedom, as dozens of pro-Castro counter-demonstrators surround them. They shove the women, rip up their flowers and scream in their faces, calling them mercenaries, traitors and worms.

(Soundbite of protest)

MIROFF: The crowd pushes the women into a nearby park and circled them to prevent escape, chanting: Fidel, Fidel. Plainclothes government agents with earpieces and aviator sunglasses stand by, directing the crowd and intervening when things get too rough. A few passing Cubans stopped to watch, but they neither join in nor interfere.

(Soundbite of protest)

MIROFF: The group of women is known as the Ladies in White. They're the wives and mothers of jailed government opponents. Last month they staged a week of daily marches, drawing international support for their cause. But for the past three Sundays in a row, the government has blocked them, sending a stern message with counter-demonstrators like Aracely Keeling, who carry out what are called acts of repudiation against the women.

Ms. ARACELY KEELING (Counter-Demonstrator): (Speaking foreign language)

MIROFF: I'm here because I'm a Cuban citizen and these women are trying to incite the rest of the country, said Keeling. They're paid by the United States to form part of a media campaign against the Cuban people, she said.

The Cuban government has released documents it says show the Ladies in White have received financial help and support from U.S. officials and anti-Castro militants in Florida. So they get no sympathy from Maria Elena Martinez, who was red-faced and hoarse from shouting at them so much.

Ms. ELENA MARTINEZ (Counter-Demonstrator): (Speaking foreign language)

MIROFF: These people are criminals. They're the scum of this country, said Martinez. They're only here because they know they can get the attention of the foreign media. They're just using you to create this whole circus, she said.

(Soundbite of protest)

MIROFF: Cuba has done more under Raul Castro to let its citizens vent frustrations. Letters to the editor and essays in the state media now openly denounce corruption or call for market-style reforms.

Prominent artists and scholars are publicly urging changes. And last weekend, a popular hip hop group with harshly critical lyrics was granted unusual permission to perform at an official venue.

(Soundbite of protest)

EDUARDO: (Speaking foreign language)

MIROFF: There's no space for people who really think differently, said this bystander in the park who gave his name as Eduardo. The changes are merely cosmetic, he said. They're for people who already think the same.

(Soundbite of chanting)

MIROFF: The harassment against the Ladies in White went on like this for seven hours. They didn't go to the bathroom, and they didn't sit down. They just stood there, staring straight ahead. And while their numbers have been dwindling each week, they say they're going to try to march again on Sunday.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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