09/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Defying the Castro Brothers Under Cuban Skies

Under cover of international distraction with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Cuban authorities violated their own Constitution by arresting and charging 75 prominent dissidents with being agents of "Yankee Imperialism."

Many were associated with the Varela Project, a peaceful human rights initiative developed by Oswaldo Paya to encourage the Cuban government to open up and respect human rights. Before they were arrested, convicted and sentenced to terms ranging from 15 to 25 years in prison, many Varela Project participants circulated a petition signed by more than 11,000 Cuban citizens across the nation, all imploring their government to grant them basic human rights.

Of these 75 dissidents, between 35 and 40 had collected signatures for the Varela Project, while others were independent journalists, librarians, and labor activists. All were simply engaged in peaceful opposition to the Castro regime. All were sentenced to prison in a short, terrifying period now known as the Black Spring of 2003.

Since the Black Spring, a few of the original 75 have been paroled for health reasons. All the others remain incarcerated for simply exercising their Cuban Constitutional rights to organize, circulate petitions, and then literally petition the government to grant basic human rights.

Initially ignored by the international community, many of the wives of Varela Project participants, now called The Group of 75, organized themselves into Las Damas de Blanco: The Ladies in White.

Now internationally respected as powerful human rights activists with impact far beyond the Cuban borders, every Sunday Las Damas have been walking across the Quinta Avenida in Miramar, Havana to the church of Santa Rita. After they attend church services, they walk through the streets of Havana, despite the constant surveillance and intimidation of the Cuban secret police.

After two years of faithfully, peacefully walking in white, the Ladies in White garnered international attention. First, they were awarded the prestigious 2005 Sakharov Prize, which is annually bestowed by the European Parliament. In the wake of that award, a movement has gathered to nominate them for a Nobel Peace Prize.

While the Ladies in White continue their walk from Miramar, Havana to the global stage, several paroled members of the Group of 75 were recently featured in a July 2009 independent documentary, Under Cuban Skies: Workers and Their Rights. Filmed in Cuba between March and May 2009, the film details "...the systematic violation of human and labor rights committed by Fidel and Raul Castro since they took power fifty years ago."

"In Havana, on Monday August, 3, 2009, human rights and labor activists Maria Elena Mir Marrero, Justo J. Sanchez, Hanoi Oliva and Daniel Sabatier, who were featured in Under Cuban Skies, were summoned and threatened," said Cuba Study Group executive director Tomas Bilbao. Labor leader Maria Elena Mir explains:

"We were told to report at a police station at 10:00 a.m. Tuesday, August 4. We reported as we were told. There, they interrogated, scolded, and warned us not to stage a demonstration on August 5: the anniversary of the Maleconazo, a major protest which took place on August 5, 1994 and that was repressed by government thugs."

Maria Elena refers to Cuba's Rapid Action Brigade as thugs -- all highly trained government agents that would transform peaceful assembly into terror and violence by wading into the peaceful group wearing civilian clothes, but armed with truncheons and other weapons and carrying official orders to disrupt, intimidate and terrify people into abandoning their peaceful human rights demonstrations.

Maria Elena continued:

"Those of us who appeared in Under Cuban Skies had our fingernails cut for DNA sampling, were fingerprinted and told to hold a cloth we were given on our private parts for about 15 minutes. We were told that it was to register our body odor. It frightened and humiliated us."

Via telephone, she went on to share that State Security Agents overseeing their interrogation at the police station said the film, "...attacks the CTC (Central de Trabajadores de Cuba). We now understand that four teams had been sent to Cuba to film Under Cuban Skies. We are now on guard and will not allow that to happen in the future."

In spite of all they endured, Maria Elena Mir said that the dissidents deeply appreciate that the film has been completed and is now being presented well beyond the streets of Havana:

"We are grateful to you for allowing us to tell the world, in our own words, what is going on -- the violations of human and labor rights -- here in Cuba."

Luis Carlos Montalván was a consultant on the film, "Under Cuban Skies - Workers and Their Rights.