Berta Soler, the most prominent member of the Ladies in White group, told a crowd of about 100 in Madrid that she was basking in her first opportunity to say what she wants without fearing retribution. She had never been allowed to leave Cuba before.
Soler alleged that Cuba keeps about 80 dissidents locked up in miserable jails alongside convicted murderers and rapists and said the communist-run government led by Raul Castro only offers Cubans "repression, misery and lots of hunger."
Most of those inmates are not recognized as prisoners of conscience by international human rights groups, however. Some were locked up for nonpolitical crimes and became activists behind bars; others are in jail for politically motivated but violent crimes like hijacking or sabotage.
Just before the event with Soler ended, about eight people in the crowd snuck a banner out of a backpack reading "Long Live the Cuban Revolution" and shouted that Soler was lying, scuffling with security guards as they were shooed out of a conference hall in downtown Madrid.
Smiling, Soler told the audience that she welcomed the demonstration, similar to a protest in Brazil last month when pro-Cuba protesters halted an event featuring prominent Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez during her first trip abroad in years.
"What has happened is normal because we are in a country where democracy and liberty exist. If they want to talk, let them talk," Soler said to applause from an audience that shouted "Cuba Yes!, Castro No!" in response.
The Ladies in White formed a decade ago and its members successfully pressed for the release of their husbands imprisoned in a 2003 crackdown. The group is now demanding political change in Cuba, and Soler said in an interview with The Associated Press that the country's communist-run government remains in power because people fear losing jobs from the main employer—the government.
Cubans "are afraid of losing the bread they take home to their children," she said.
Soler was able to travel because the Cuban government recently relaxed restrictions and granted her a visa. She said she wants to go to Brussels to accept the European Union's top human rights award that group members couldn't travel to receive after it was awarded in 2005. But she said she won't go unless two other members of The Ladies in White get permission to leave Cuba so they can accept it together.
The new travel law eliminated Cuba's exit permit requirement and eased bureaucratic procedures for going abroad, but contains language reserving the state's right to withhold passports for reasons of national security, public interest and for people with pending legal cases.
Cuban authorities label dissidents like Soler as treasonous "mercenaries" who accept foreign money to undermine the government. The protesters in Madrid chanted that Soler's visit was being "subsidized" by unnamed foreign powers. Many pro-Cuba supporters accuse the United States of providing financial support to the dissidents.
The EU's Sakharov award comes with a (EURO)50,000 ($65,000) cash prize. If Soler picks it up, she said the money would be deposited into a bank account so small amounts can be sent periodically to Cuba to finance the activities of the Ladies in White. She said she plans to stay in Europe for about two weeks, and may also visit Poland.