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Cuban dissidents rally in Havana

Some refuse to take part, saying it was sponsored by Miami exiles

Fidel Castro
European Union

HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- In what organizers called an unprecedented event, dissidents from groups opposed to Fidel Castro's communist regime gathered publicly Friday and chanted "Down with Fidel."

"Freedom! Freedom!" the group of more than 100 delegates cheered in the yard of Felix Bonne, a veteran dissident, in a working-class section of Havana. Castro's regime would not allow the use of a theater or hotel for the assembly.

Participants included members of dissident groups that are sometimes at odds but share the goal of driving Castro from power.

"We think this is the first democratic assembly that has ever been held in Cuba," said organizer and former political prisoner Marta Beatriz Roque of the rare public display of opposition.

Still, some opposition groups refused to take part, saying the event was backed by Miami-based exile groups that support violence.

A U.S. diplomat brought a videotaped message from U.S. President George Bush, who congratulated attendees on their courage and efforts to build democracy.

The two-day Assembly to Promote Civil Society started on the date that, until the 1959 Revolution that put Castro in power, was celebrated as Cuba's Independence Day.

A few dozen foreign observers attended, including James Cason, chief of mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. There were also representatives of the European Union and the Japanese, Polish, Czech, and Canadian embassies.

Organizers had been concerned Cuban police would prevent the meeting from happening.

Rally a 'fraud'

Well-known dissident Oswaldo Paya of the pro-democracy Varela Project refused to take part, calling the meeting "a fraud against the opposition" organized by "extremists whose movement has in the past been infiltrated and influenced by Cuban State Security agents."

No government authorities were known to be on hand and there was no blatant police presence in the neighborhood, but government spies do regularly infiltrate dissident meetings.

Cuban authorities blocked some international observers from attending. Two Polish European Union deputies who tried to enter the country Tuesday were turned back, and four Polish journalists who planned to attend were detained Friday, the Polish Embassy in Havana said.

Castro kicks out European lawmakers

Also, Thursday night, Cuba expelled a Czech senator and a German deputy who had been in the country for five days and were planning to attend the meeting. Czech Sen. Karel Schwarzenberg and German Christian Democratic parliament member Arnold Vaatz told CNN they were directed to get on an Air France flight to Paris.

Some participants Friday expressed surprise that the meeting took place at all.

The group called for government reforms and popular involvement in government decision-making. The dissidents also vowed to build relations among civic groups and to "rescue" lost values and traditions.

In papers handed out to media and others, the group said it agreed the meeting was a "big step forward" in the 46-year struggle to get out from under Castro's leadership.

Organizers are hoping more than 350 dissident groups would be represented at the meeting by the time it ends Saturday.

On Tuesday the U.S. Senate passed a resolution "extending its support and solidarity to the participants of the historic meeting" and "urging the international community to support the assembly and its mission to bring democracy and human rights to Cuba." The U.S. Treasury Department granted travel licenses to anti-Castro Cuban-Americans who want to attend.

Cuba accuses assembly organizers of being "mercenaries in the pay of the U.S.A.," a charge they strongly deny. "We have funded the assembly with donations from our brothers and sisters in the exile community. None of the $25,000 we have received comes from the U.S. government," said dissident Rene Gomez Manzano.

Asked by CNN to comment on the planned assembly, Castro said, "Those who attack us don't represent more than a fraction of 1 percent. ... You (the foreign news media) have helped create them."

Many wives of Cuban political prisoners did not attend the meeting, saying they feared it would be "provocative" and counter-productive.

CNN Havana Bureau Chief Lucia Newman contributed to this report.

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