Cuban police, in coordinated actions carried out before sunrise Tuesday, arrested as many as 12 prominent Cuban human rights dissidents, according to other activists and foreign diplomats.
The action was the single largest state security operation against the small but influential Cuban dissident community since it began to organize in the mid-1980s.
The police move also signaled a shift in official attitude, denoting a significant hardening of policy toward the human rights activists for the first time since delegates of the United Nations Human Rights Commission came to Havana in September to investigate Cuba's human rights performance.
Those in custody, members of the two most important human rights organizations in Cuba, were planning to stage a demonstration in front of the Soviet Embassy in Havana.
Demonstration organizers had said that at least 100 rights activists were going to participate in the event to demand that visiting Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev persuade President Fidel Castro to adopt Soviet-style political reforms in Cuba.
The arrests are likely to deepen the perception that Castro remains adamant about not allowing greater political liberties in Cuba despite official contentions that human rights here are respected.
Castro's principal political opponent in the island, rights activist Elizardo Sanchez, who was not arrested, speculated Tuesday -- a few hours after the arrests -- that the government probably acted to preclude any further attempts at street demonstrations that might encourage further dissent.
"The government perhaps calculated that it would rather pay a small price now rather than later face the possibility of uncontrolled opposition," Sanchez said at a hastily called news conference.
The Cuban government made no official announcement, but two Foreign Ministry officials assigned to help reporters covering the Gorbachev visit confirmed the arrests.
"We understand that some arrests took place of people who were were planning to stage an unauthorized street demonstration," one Cuban official told The Herald.
Rights activists said that no formal charges have been filed against those under arrest and that authorities were holding them either incommunicado -- without access to relatives or lawyers -- or at undisclosed sites.
The whereabouts of at least two of those picked up in the sweep were unknown, and Sanchez said he considered them to have "disappeared," a term used by human rights activists in other Latin American countries for victims of paramilitary abductions.
Sanchez, two other human rights activists and foreign diplomats said the arrests occurred between 4 and 6 a.m. in the homes of between seven and 12 activists living in Havana.
Another activist was arrested Monday afternoon in the westernmost province of Pinar del Rio. It was unclear whether the arrest of Pedro Alvarez was connected to the arrests in Havana or to the demonstration in front of the Soviet Embassy.
Those arrested in Havana included leaders and members of the Cuban Human Rights Party and the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
The party was founded by longtime anti-Castro activist Ricardo Bofill, who now lives abroad, while the commission is headed by Sanchez.
Those under arrest include the three principal leaders of the Cuban Human Rights Party who took over the organization after Bofill left last year.
They are party leader and secretary general Samuel Martinez Lara, party ideology chief Hiram Abid, the second-in-command, and third party secretary David Moya, according to Sanchez and the other sources.
Also arrested were Edita Cruz Rodriguez and others whose names were not known.
Party leader Martinez Lara is a physician who in the 1970s attended a course in community psychology at the University of California at Berkeley.
He was featured Monday on the CBS Evening News, broadcast
from Havana, where he called the Castro government "the most cruel and repressive regime in the continent."
Abid, the ideology chief, is a prominent former professor of Marxism at the University of Havana.
Also arrested was commission member Roberto Bahamonde.
Arrested members of Sanchez's commission were Esteban Gonzales and Roberto Bahamonde.
Bahamonde gained some prominence in the human rights community when in March he unsuccessfully tried to run in preliminary elections for the Cuban National Assembly.
Cuban authorities prevented him from reading his human rights platform and from registering his candidacy.
Justice Minister Juan Escalona said last week that Bahamonde had been prevented from running because he had not met legal requirements for participating in national elections.
Sanchez, at his news conference, said Tuesday that he considered Bahamonde and Gonzalez to have "disappeared" because no one in the commission or in their families had been able to determine where authorities were holding them.
Sanchez said that in the other cases, authorities were holding the activists in police stations around Havana.
© 1996 The Miami Herald.