- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

The French Embassy in Havana recently put liberty, equality and fraternity on display by inviting Fidel Castro’s political opponents to eat canapes and drink vintage Bordeaux at its annual Bastille Day soiree.

“The dissidents were invited. They came, and they were very happy to be there,” said Agnes Vondermuhll, French Embassy spokeswoman in Washington. “They were satisfied.”

The invitations to the dissidents this year were part of an effort by EU nations to protest the Cuban government’s recent crackdown on dissidents.

In March, Cuba arrested 75 opposition figures and sentenced them to as long as 28 years in prison.

The Cuban government found dissidents guilty of treason after the U.S. Embassy began a concerted effort in the fall to invite Mr. Castro’s opposition to the U.S. Interest Section in Havana for parties and other functions.

According to press accounts and French officials, some of Cuba’s more prominent opposition figures, including Oswaldo Paya and Elizardo Sanchez, attended the Bastille Day party.

“The majority of my colleagues and myself are going to attend this celebration, not with an attitude of defiance toward the government but defending our essential right to accept any invitation we receive on civilized terms,” Mr. Sanchez, head of the Cuban Comission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, told the Associated Press as he entered the embassy.

On July 14, 1789, French peasants stormed the infamous Bastille Prison in Paris and began the French Revolution.

The Bastille Day party is one of the more anticipated social events in Havana each year, attended by hundreds of diplomats, businessmen and Cuban government officials. Mr. Castro has attended some past celebrations.

This year, dour-looking Cuban government officials showed up at the ambassador’s residence and returned their invitations before leaving.

It was suggested by several that it was not safe for government officials to break baguette with the French this year.

After Cuba’s crackdown on dissent, the European Union’s relationship with the communist-ruled island has been in a downward spiral.

On June 5, the European Union made a declaration regarding the crackdown.

“Following the recent deplorable actions of the Cuban authorities … the EU has unanimously decided to: Limit the bilateral high-level governmental visits; reduce the profile of member states’ participation in cultural events; invite Cuban dissidents at national day celebrations; [and] proceed to the re-evaluation of the EU common position.

And French and Spanish embassy officials said the European Union sent a memo to its member embassies in Havana directing them to invite dissidents to their functions.

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