HAVANA – With shouts of "Freedom" and the singing of the Cuban national anthem, more than 200 people on Friday opened a rare opposition assembly in communist Cuba, uninterrupted by authorities despite the expulsion of European lawmakers, journalists and others who planned to attend.
Martha Beatriz Roque (search), 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," Roque said, claiming it was the first such gathering in Fidel Castro's (search) 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 (search) 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," 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 heard earlier in the meeting of "Abajo Fidel" or "Down with Fidel."
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 from the country on Friday, the Polish Foreign Ministry said in Warsaw.
Two former Spanish senators, Isabel San Baldomero and Rosa Lopez Garnica, also were told to leave Cuba, Spain's conservative Popular Party said Friday. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos denounced the expulsions as "unacceptable."
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 Senator Karel Schwarzenberg, one of the lawmakers police took to the airport Thursday afternoon.
In Rome, Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini summoned the Cuban ambassador for clarification on the reported detention of Francesco Battistini, a journalist with Italy's daily Corriere della Sera. Battistini was expected back in Italy on the first available flight.
Cuba typically detains, and often expels, international journalists working on the island without government approval.
"These actions demonstrate the Cuban government's fear of Cubans who assert their rights and underline the need for change," U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington.
Organizers, who had predicted about 500 people would show up for the meeting, which was held in the back yard of veteran dissident Felix Bonne, seemed satisfied with a turnout closer to 200.
A little more than half were delegates from opposition groups around the island. The rest were organizers, international journalists, diplomats and other guests.
"This is an exercise in grass roots democracy," said James Cason, chief of the U.S. Interests Section. Castro accuses the American mission of bankrolling the opposition on the island — a charge that Washington denies.
"This is about Cubans discussing, in their own country, their own future," Cason said.
Cuban authorities have not directly commented on the meeting.
The event also revealed divisions within the dissident movement itself. The Christian Liberation Movement, led by internationally known dissident Oswaldo Paya, refused to attend but told Associated Press Television News his decision was not based on rivalry "but a distrust of where these people come from."
"They don't represent the majority of the opposition, or even the most important groups," said Paya, lead organizer of the Varela Project democracy effort. "It's a smoke screen."