A Cuban dissident paints the front wall
Adalberto Roque  /  AFP - Getty Images
A Cuban dissident paints the front wall of the opposition leader Felix Bonne's house on Wednesday in the Rio Verde neighborhood outside of Havana, where the 2nd Dissident Congress will be held on Friday. 
By Producer
NBC News
updated 5/19/2005 11:22:16 AM ET 2005-05-19T15:22:16

A group of Cuban activists will make history on Friday. In defiance of a government that has ruled for 46 years and outlaws political opposition, they plan to hold an open-air meeting to demand political change.

Approximately 500 people have been invited to attend the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Cuba, representing over 300 groups on the island opposed to the Castro government including illegal political parties, human rights organizations and independent libraries.

The coalition hopes to take steps toward forging unity in Cuba’s fractured pro-democracy movement still recovering from a government beating in 2003.

At that time, Cuban authorities jailed dozens of activists, charged with subversion and collaborating with American officials to cause harm to the Cuban economy and Fidel Castro’s rule. During trials, the stunned opposition learned that a large group of undercover security agents had infiltrated their ranks.

Martha Beatriz Roque, spearheading this new effort, was herself the victim of a sting operation that sent her to prison for a year. At her trial, the prosecution’s star witness turned out to be an undercover agent posing as Roque’s personal secretary.

The infiltrations sowed doubts and suspicions, and caused further division among the opposition generally perceived by Cuba watchers and diplomats as relatively weak.

A key figure missing
Some key figures will be missing from the upcoming gathering, including Oswaldo Payá, from the Christian Liberation Movement, and former political prisoners.

Two and a half years ago, after winning the European Parliament’s Andrei Sakharov human rights award, Payá called for a national dialogue on a post-Castro transition that would include Cubans living on and off the island as well as government supporters. That enraged some activists who found his ideas too conciliatory with a regime that has refused to embrace any real change in four decades.

Roberto León / NBC News
Oswaldo Paya, an activist from the Christian Liberation Movement, will be missing from the meeting.

Instead of simply voicing disagreement with his proposal, Payá claims he became the target of a smear campaign.

“After we proposed dialogue, the same people organizing the May 20th meeting criticized us, lied about us, sabotaged our work and created confusion,” said Payá. “That’s the way these people operate.”

Payá also opposes U.S. involvement in the weekend gathering.

While Roque has reached out to Miami for financial aid and Congress for moral support, Payá argues it’s best to maintain distance. Anything else, he said, allows “the regime to falsely accuse our people of being mercenaries and to throw them in jail.”

Proponents of reconciliation say excluded
Activists Miriam Leyva and her husband Oscar Chepe Espinosa, recently released from jail for health reasons, claim they too were excluded from the weekend gathering because of their support for reconciliation and past criticism of certain U.S. policies with the island as being too harsh.

Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, whose group Cambio Cubano also advocates dialogue with Castro, never received his invitation. While he sees the meeting as a “positive propaganda tool,” he believes government agents will counteract any progress.

“By giving the government advance notice of this meeting, you gave the agents time to neutralize it,” said Menoyo, a former rebel commander who spent 22 years in prison after breaking with Castro. He returned to Cuba in 2003 after living for a time in exile.

Beatriz del Carmen Pedroso, whose husband went to prison in March 2003 and remains behind bars, expressed her fears to the AP news agency that the meeting was too confrontational and could spark new arrests.

Several activists who initially appeared as event sponsors claim they never lent their names in the first place.

Others put aside internal differences
Still, others are willing to put aside internal differences this weekend in order to send a message to Cuban authorities.

Vladimiro Roca, a veteran human rights activist who represents the group Todos Unidos or Everyone United, once had a close political alliance with Roque and the other organizers that dissolved after they were jailed in 1997. Roca, considered a voice of conciliation, supports any event that opposes the government. He’ll attend even though he believes it could land him in jail.

“I’ll leave my house for the meeting. If I arrive or not is a different matter,” said Roca.

Elizardo Sanchez, another longtime activist who served eight years as a prisoner of conscience, will attend the meeting as an exercise to reclaim his civil rights of free speech and assembly.

He recalls a similar meeting in 1996 he and others tried to organize.

“The Cuban government totally crushed us,” he said. But, they managed to hold the meeting even though 50 of them were rounded-up. “There were more foreign reporters and diplomatic guests there than delegates,” remembered Sanchez.

Times have changed, though. “Twenty years ago, there were less than 10 of us involved in open political action. Today, there are thousands standing up to this totalitarian government.”

Mary Murray is an NBC News Producer based in Havana.

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