Cubans celebrate rare assembly

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HAVANA — With shouts of “Freedom” and the singing of the Cuban national anthem, more than 200 people opened a rare opposition assembly in Cuba yesterday, uninterrupted by authorities despite the expulsion of European lawmakers, journalists and others who planned to attend.

Martha Beatriz Roque, the meeting’s lead organizer and a former political prisoner who attempted a similar gathering nine years ago, called it “a point of departure” for future work.

“There will be a before and after for May 20 in Cuba,” Mrs. Roque said, contending it was the first such gathering in Fidel Castro’s 46 years of Communist rule. “This is a triumph for all the opposition.”

Several years in the planning, the general meeting of the Assembly for the Promotion of Civil Society was aimed at bringing together diverse opposition groups to discuss promotion of a Western-style democracy in Cuba.

It was marred by infighting among some of the opposition groups and the expulsion of several foreigners from the country, but organizers said it was a victory that the two-day meeting began without interruption from the government.

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

A planned 1996 meeting of the now-defunct Concilio Cubano was canceled after about 50 members were rounded up beforehand. The day the convention was to be held, Cuban MiGs off the island’s coast shot down two American civilian planes carrying four members of the exile group Brothers to the Rescue, plunging the countries into political crisis.

Seated in rows of plastic chairs bought with donations from exile groups, the delegates cheered as organizers played an audiotaped message from President Bush.

“I have a message to those assembling today to protest in Cuba: As you struggled for the freedom of your country, the American people stand with you,” Mr. Bush said in his traditional May 20 speech recognizing Cuban Independence Day.

“Viva Bush” or “Long Live Bush,” some delegates shouted in contrast with cries of “Abajo Fidel” or “Down With Fidel,” heard earlier in the meeting.

Cuba on Thursday expelled two European lawmakers who had planned to attend the gathering and refused entry to two others earlier this week. Six Poles — three journalists, a human rights worker and two students — were being expelled yesterday, the Polish Foreign Ministry said in Warsaw.

Also barred from entering the country this week was a representative of the powerful Miami exile lobby, the Cuban American National Foundation.

“This is typical behavior of a totalitarian state,” said Czech Sen. Karel Schwarzenberg, who was expelled Thursday.

In Rome, Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini summoned the Cuban ambassador for clarification on the reported detention of a journalist with Italy’s daily Corriere della Sera.

Organizers had predicted about 500 people would show up for the meeting, which was held in the back yard of veteran dissident Felix Bonne.

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