Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanes has criticized harassment of a leading Cuban dissident group, saying insults and obscenities hurled by pro-government crowds at the so-called Ladies in White during their protest marches are "vile" and "cowardly."
In an open letter published Tuesday in Miami's El Nuevo Herald, Milanes said one may not agree with the dissident group, but he disapproves of how they've been treated at times by rowdy government supporters. The public comments drew attention for their outspokenness and came just days after the Havana resident and two-time Grammy winner performed his first concert in Miami, before several thousand people.
"When I see that some women dressed in white protest in the street and are mistreated by men and women, I cannot help but be ashamed and indignant," the 68-year-old singer wrote in Tuesday's letter, referring to the group.
Milanes, one of the celebrated founders of Cuba's "nueva trova" musical movement, has long maintained he is loyal to the Cuban Revolution. But he has at times advocated for more freedoms on the island and been critical of the government. In 2010, he publicly backed a dissident hunger striker who was demanding the release of political prisoners.
The Ladies in White formed in 2003, following the arrest of 75 dissidents, many of whom have since been freed and left communist Cuba. The women, who seek march weekly, are appealing for more political freedoms and the release of remaining dissident prisoners there.
Usually, the protests are quiet and uneventful, but on occasion large crowds come out and taunt the women with shouts of "Worms!" and "Get out!" Cuban officials insist that the counter-protests are spontaneous, though state security officials are normally present.
"The most vile and cowardly thing is for a horde of supposed revolutionaries to ruthlessly attack these women," Milanes wrote. This "does not mean I disagree with Fidel (Castro), nor does it mean I agree with the Ladies in White."
Dissidents have increasingly complained of harassment and rough treatment in recent weeks, including the reported weekend arrest of more two-dozen people in the southeastern city of Santiago de Cuba, including members of a local chapter of Ladies in White.
Cuban state media, which rarely mention dissident groups except to accuse the dissidents of being "mercenaries" hired by Washington, have not reported any arrests, and the accounts could not be independently confirmed. Exile groups in Miami said relatives of those arrested over the weekend were planning sit-ins.
Milanes is most famous for ballads such as "Yolanda", which he performed in Miami on Aug. 27.
In the letter published Tuesday, Milanes also said he was saddened and embarrassed by what he views as a "complicit silence" among fellow artists and others who are afraid to openly criticize the government.
"Upon my return to Havana," Milanes wrote, "I say to the Cuban intellectuals, to the artists, to the musicians, and to the high-level state officials, don't whisper in my ear: "I'm with you but...."
There was no immediate government response in Havana to Milanes' letter.
His comments about the Ladies in White came in response to a column last week by journalist Edmundo Garcia, who co-hosts a Miami radio show with a charter flight company owner who is one of the foremost advocates of travel to Cuba.
Garcia criticized Milanes for telling U.S. media he sympathized with the Ladies in White and was no longer a "Fidelista." Garcia also mocked the singer for failing to criticize the exile community and for eschewing pro-revolutionary songs when he performed in Miami.
About 200 hard-line Cuban exiles, who have long considered Milanes a supporter of Fidel and Raul Castro, picketed his Miami performance. Meanwhile, some on the left have questioned the revolutionary credentials of someone who dares to criticize the government.
"My 53 years of revolutionary militancy give me the right, which very few exercise in Cuba, to express myself with the freedom that my principles require," Milanes wrote. "That freedom means I have no mortal commitment to the Cuban leaders, whom I have admired and respected. But they are not gods and I am no fanatic, and when I feel I can make a criticism and say no, I say so without fear or reservations."
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.