HAVANA (AFP) - Cuba's arrest of several dissident activists caused a new rift Wednesday with the United States, the first diplomatic scuffle since this month's historic announcement of a renewal in ties.
Washington condemned Havana's "lack of respect" for human rights after the communist authorities on Tuesday arrested leading figures expected at an open mic session convened for Cubans to speak out about their future.
"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 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 ties severed during the Cold War and move to ease the five-decade US trade embargo.
PERFORMANCE ARTIST, DISSIDENTS DETAINED
The arrests came on the day Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera had 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.
Dissidents said the authorities arrested at least 10 activists, including Bruguera.
Independent news portal 14ymedio - run by leading dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez - reported that Bruguera had been seen in a Havana jail wearing a grey prison uniform.
The website cited Sanchez's husband and editor, Reinaldo Escobar, who said he was detained for several hours alongside Bruguera before being freed Tuesday night.
Bruguera's sister Deborah, who lives in Italy, wrote on her Facebook page that authorities had come to their mother's residence in Havana and taken her sister away.
"I finally managed to talk with my mom, who's very worried," she wrote.
"She told me it was two police officers and a soldier who took her, saying that they would be back in an hour, that they just wanted to 'talk.'
She's starting to get seriously worried because it's been more than nine hours of 'talking.'"
Cuban authorities have not confirmed the arrests.
Bruguera, 46, is known for her politically provocative work. She trained in Cuba and the US and splits her time between those countries and France.
Dissidents said more arrests may still come to light. Some activists were also placed under house arrest, including blogger Sanchez, according to her website.
About 20 activists and numerous foreign correspondents turned up for the open mic event, but Bruguera never arrived.
Her cellphone was out of service and her apartment guarded by plain-clothes police who refused to allow anyone through, AFP correspondents said.
The State Department said that as part of the process of normalising ties with Cuba, 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."