Cuba breaks up weekly dissident march hours before Obama visit
U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle approach Cuba's foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez (L) as they arrive at Havana's international airport for a three-day trip, in Havana March 20, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Cuban police backed by hundreds of shouting pro-government demonstrators broke up a march by the dissident group Ladies in White on Sunday, detaining about 50 people hours before U.S. President Barack Obama was due for a historic visit.

The women and their male supporters carried out their normal Sunday demonstration calling for free speech and amnesty for political prisoners after attending Roman Catholic Mass in an upscale neighborhood.

A similar but less intense scene plays out every Sunday. This one was much more raucous, with a larger-than-normal crowd of pro-government demonstrators. Both sides appeared more animated in front of the unusual contingent of foreign journalists, many in town for the first visit by a U.S. president in 88 years.

The Ladies marched toward the much larger pro-government crowd, which was shouting: "These streets belong to Fidel," referring to retired leader Fidel Castro.

When the two groups met at an intersection, the Ladies tossed leaflets into the air and sat down, at which point police seized them and wrestled them into buses.

Most allowed themselves to be taken away but others went kicking and screaming.

As the detainees were driven away, the counter-demonstrators banged on the windows. Some Ladies flashed back the L sign for "Liberty," formed by a thumb and forefinger.

The dissidents are usually released after a few hours.

Such short-term detentions have increased in recent months, according to the dissident Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which has reported 1,000 a month since October, up from a previous monthly average of more than 700.

Obama will meet dissidents at the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday, heightening tensions between two governments that only restored diplomatic relations last year after a 54-year break.

The leader of the Ladies in White, Berta Soler, has been invited to meet Obama. She was among those detained on Sunday.

In a letter dated March 10, Obama promised the Ladies he would raise the issues of freedom of speech and assembly with Cuban President Raul Castro.

The Cuban government dismisses dissidents as mercenaries seeking to destabilize the country. Many dissidents are funded by U.S. interests, which the Cuban government uses to discredit them. Dissidents say they have no choice but to take foreign money since their careers are derailed once they become opponents.

Cuba defends its universal healthcare and education as human rights and criticizes the U.S. record on race relations and the Guantanamo Bay military prison.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)