msnbc.com news services
updated 5/20/2005 1:43:08 PM ET 2005-05-20T17:43:08

A bold and rare Cuban dissident assembly opened in an organizer’s back yard Friday despite deep divisions among the opposition, the deportations of European lawmakers who hoped to attend and the reported harassment of some participants.

One of the organizers said the gathering of about 200 people — more than half of them dissidents — was a first in the communist country ruled by Fidel Castro for 46 years.

“There will be a before and after for May 20 in Cuba,” Martha Beatriz Roque said. “This is a triumph for all the opposition.”

Singing of the Cuban national anthem and chanting “Libertad” — “Freedom” — the general meeting of the Assembly for the Promotion of Civil Society in Cuba opened without any interruption.

“This is a really nice surprise,” said veteran activist Vladimiro Roca. “My predictions were not realized. I didn’t think the government would allow it to happen.”

On the eve of the event, however, Cuba expelled two European lawmakers who had planned to attend.

“This is typical behavior of a totalitarian state,” said Czech Senator Karel Schwarzenberg, escorted by police to the airport Thursday afternoon. “I did nothing against the law. They just didn’t like the people I was visiting.”

Schwarzenberg, a chancellor under former Czech President Vaclav Havel, spoke with The Associated Press on his cell phone as his flight was about to take off for Paris. He said German lawmaker Arnold Vaatz also was deported.

Earlier in the week, Polish European Parliament members Boguslav Sonik and Jacek Protasiewicz were refused entry into Cuba when they arrived to attend the assembly. A representative from the powerful Miami lobby, the Cuban American National Foundation, also was refused entry this week, Roque said.

Several years in the planning, the meeting was designed to bring together dissidents both on the island and abroad to discuss plans for creating a democratic society in the country.

Several dozen volunteers spent two weeks working on veteran dissident Felix Bonne’s back yard, where the meeting was held. Concrete was poured and bathrooms built to accommodate a crowd in the spacious area shaded by huge fruit trees.

Turnout pleases organizers
Organizers, who earlier had predicted about 500 would show up, nevertheless seem pleased with a turnout of closer to 200.

A little more than half of those present were delegates from diverse opposition groups around the island. The rest were organizers, international journalists, diplomats and other special guests.

Among the attendees was James Cason, chief of the U.S. Interests Section. Castro accuses the American mission of bankrolling the opposition on the island — a charge Washington denies.

“This is an exercise in grass roots democracy,” said Cason, who attended as an observer. “This is about Cubans discussing, in their own country, their own future.”

He noted the U.S. Congress had recently passed a resolution supporting the assembly.

The Cuban government has not directly commented on the meeting or related events, including the expulsions of the European lawmakers.

The event revealed divisions within the dissident movement itself. The Christian Liberation Movement, led by dissident Oswaldo Paya, said Thursday it would not attend a gathering it considers to be “a big fraud against the opposition.”

The statement from the group accused Roque and other assembly organizers of working in concert with Cuban state security members, and with the support of Miami-based exiles, to the benefit of Castro’s government.

Roque declined Friday to comment on the statement, saying she preferred to talk about positive issues concerning the day’s events. Paya and Roque have long been at odds.

Other dissidents, including several dozen relatives of political prisoners, avoided the event because they feared arrests.

Roque complained last week that numerous dissidents from Cuba’s interior had been summoned to appear at their local police stations the same day as the assembly, and dissidents on Cuba’s Isle of Youth were told by authorities they could not travel to Havana for the meeting.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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