- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2002

HAVANA More than 300 Cuban dissident groups have formed a kind of opposition parliament, pulling together a huge coalition of opponents of Fidel Castro's government, leaders of the umbrella organization said yesterday.

Lead organizer Marta Beatriz Roque said the Assembly to Promote Civil Society pulls together 321 dissident organizations representing everything from human rights groups, to independent libraries, to labor and press unions operating outside Cuba's communist system.

The groups cannot now hold a large gathering, but "we are doing what we can to do so as soon as possible," said Mrs. Roque. Such a gathering especially of dissident groups is unheard of in Cuba, where large meetings must be organized or approved by the government.

The last time Cuban dissidents tried to gather in 1996 under the banner of "Concilio Cubano," hundreds were arrested.

There was no immediate reaction from the government, whose responses generally come in carefully studied written statements, often published in state newspapers. Authorities in Cuba generally view dissidents as "counterrevolutionaries."

Mrs. Roque told reporters the new opposition assembly represents a wide range of political views and "is open to all those that want to participate."

Among those who have not joined are lead organizers of the Varela Project, which seeks a referendum asking voters if they favor guarantees for rights such as freedom of speech and private business ownership.

Mrs. Roque is among those who do not support the Varela Project, saying it doesn't go far enough.

But Varela Project organizers can join the assembly if they want, said Rene Delgado, another assembly leader who does not back the referendum campaign. "It is inclusive, not exclusive," he said.

The refusal of dissidents including Mrs. Roque, Mr. Delgado and Felix Bonne to back the Varela Project has caused a major split in Cuba's opposition. Those three were among four well-known opponents convicted of incitement to sedition in 1999 after a closed trial that sparked international protests.

Vladimiro Roca, the fourth member of the group, does back the Varela Project. He was released in May after serving the longest sentence of all five years. The rest served about two years each.

"There is another part [of the opposition] that says we do have to change the constitution," Mrs. Roque said, referring to Varela Project organizers' insistence that they want to create new laws, not constitutional change.

"With this constitution we are not going to resolve anything. With Fidel Castro we are not going to resolve anything," Mrs. Roque said.

Varela Project organizers submitted more than 11,020 signatures to Cuba's parliament in May but have not received a response.

After the signatures were submitted, the parliament approved a constitutional amendment declaring that Cuba's social, political and economic systems are "irrevocable."

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