Havana: A Cuban crackdown on dissident activists caused a new rift with the United States on Wednesday, the first diplomatic scuffle since this month's historic announcement of a renewal in ties.
Authorities arrested 51 dissidents Tuesday to stop them from attending an open mic session convened for Cubans to speak out about their future, said Elizardo Sanchez, the head of the officially banned Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Committee.
Most were later released, although around 10 to 12 were still being held into the evening, Sanchez said.
The crackdown is the first since US President Barack Obama and Cuban counterpart Raul Castro announced two weeks ago that the two countries would revive diplomatic relations severed during the Cold War and move to ease the five-decade US trade embargo.
In a stern reaction, Washington condemned Havana's "lack of respect" for human rights.
"We are deeply concerned about the latest reports of detentions and arrests by Cuban authorities of peaceful civil society members and activists," the US State Department said in a statement.
"We strongly condemn the Cuban government's continued harassment and repeated use of arbitrary detention, at times with violence, to silence critics, disrupt peaceful assembly and freedom (of) expression, and intimidate citizens."
The arrests came after Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera invited her compatriots to share their dreams for the island's future at a "participatory performance" in Revolution Square, an iconic plaza in front of Cuba's government headquarters.
Bruguera was among those released by the end of Wednesday, after being held twice times during the day, including when she tried to go to Havana's main seaside avenue, the Malecon, to hold a press conference with other activists.
An AFP correspondent said that just as she arrived, two plainclothes police stopped her, spoke briefly with her and then bundled her off in their car.
"They're taking me away," she said before entering the car earlier Wednesday.
- US vows more pressure -
Prominent dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez was also briefly placed under house arrest Tuesday, while her husband and editor, Reinaldo Escobar, was held for several hours at the same jail as Bruguera, reported their website, 14ymedio.
Cuban authorities have not confirmed any of the arrests. State media have so far not reported on the subject.
Bruguera, 46, is known for her politically provocative work. She trained in Cuba and the United States and splits her time between those countries and France.
In 2009, she held a similar event at the Havana Biennial Art Exhibition, offering museum-goers an open mic to express their views of the Castro government.
About 20 activists and numerous foreign correspondents turned up for Tuesday's open mic event, but Bruguera never arrived.
Her cell phone was out of service and her apartment guarded by plainclothes police who refused to allow anyone through, AFP correspondents said.
The State Department said the US would "continue to press the Cuban government to uphold its international obligations and to respect the rights of Cubans to peacefully assemble and express their ideas and opinions" as part of the process to restore ties.
The crackdown will likely fuel criticism of the US-Cuban rapprochement from those who oppose it in the Cuban exile community and in Congress.
Obama wants Congressional cooperation in lifting the 54-year-old embargo.
But several lawmakers, led by Senator Marco Rubio, who is Cuban-American, have dismissed the change in Cuba policy as appeasing a dictator.
The first high-level meeting on restoring ties is scheduled for late January in Havana. The US assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, Roberta Jacobson, has confirmed she will attend.