A highly-publicized pro-democracy gathering, unprecedented in socialist Cuba, where the government keeps a tight leash on the opposition, opened Friday in a rustic setting -- a dirt yard with scattered fruit trees belonging to former political prisoner Felix Bonne.
Just over one hundred dissidents from around the island, plus a handful of western diplomats, including Washington's top envoy, and the foreign press corps, attended the opening session of the two-day meeting punctuated by cries of "Libertad (Freedom)." Even a few shouts of "Abajo Fidel (Down With Fidel)" rang out.
The Assembly for the Promotion of Civil Society is both a pro-U.S. coalition group and the name of the event, organized by Bonne and two other former political prisoners, independent economist Marta Beatriz Roque and lawyer Rene Gomez Manzano.
Uncertainty hung over the event until the last minute. A similar attempt to unite the opposition in 1996 was stymied by a government roundup of 50 participating dissidents. Roque, Bonne and Gomez were among the 75 dissidents jailed in a 2003 government sweep that threatened to wipe out Cuba's already tiny opposition movement. Along with 11 others, the three organizers of Friday's event were given early releases from prison on health grounds.
For unknown reasons, the open-air gathering was left undisturbed although arriving participants noticed numerous plainclothes security agents in the area. And inexplicably, exterminators wielding noisy equipment that blows a petroleum-based smoke began working on the property adjacent to Bonne's.
Various European parliamentarians traveled to Cuba hoping to attend the meeting but were expelled, as were as European journalists wanting to report on it. Their respective governments have protested to Cuban authorities.
"No state, no regime, no party has the right to control a whole nation. That is why we are here," Roque told the crowd. She charged the government prevented many participants living in other parts of the country from traveling to Havana. Roque had expected from 360 to 500 participants to attend but only 105 had registered by the end of the morning.
Greetings and encouragement from President Bush were played from a laptop computer. "We are not waiting for the day of Cuban freedom, we are working for the day of Cuban freedom," he said to scattered cheers of "Viva Bush."
Miguel Lopez Sanchez, one of the volunteers who spent ten days cleaning up the yard and preparing it for the gathering admires the U.S. president. "He gives a good example to all the world about democracy. That's why I love President Bush ... he's a good man to the democracy also and we follow his thought too ... he has a strong mind," he said in passable English.
But this positive attitude among some segments of the dissident movement toward Castro's longtime enemy, the United States, has made them vulnerable to Cuban government charges that they are "mercenaries on the United States payroll."
James Cason, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, sees it differently. "They put this on by themselves, they didn't have any assistance from us," he said. "This is a real exercise, example, to me, of grass roots democracy. These are people who have come from all over the island, taken tremendous personal risk to be here."
He says the President's message does not imply that Washington is running the opposition movement in Cuba. "I think what the President is saying is that we, around the world, favor people who want to become free and you've heard lots of chants of liberty, liberty. These people obviously want to be free and to participate in their future."
Still, the fact that Assembly organizers turned to the hard-line Cuban American exile community for financial help lends fuel to Castro's fire. Roque initially asked them to raise $130,000 needed to stage the gathering. Miami-based groups like the Cuban Patriotic Junta and the 2506 Brigade 9 made up of die-hard Bay of Pigs veterans) were among the contributors.
Fundraising fell short. Exiles did send a little over $50,000 to Roque. Money, in part, was used to purchase refrigerators and freezers, bathroom fixtures for outdoor toilets, and the plastic chairs on which delegates and guests sat.
The fact that Cuba's opposition movement is fractured also threatened to undermine the event. Independent economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who was one of the 75 jailed in 2003, and who like Roque was released from prison because of failing health, was not invited to the Assembly; nor was his wife Miriam Leyva.
"I was in prison with Marta and wish her luck. But, no, we weren't invited and we don't have any interest in participating," Espinosa said. "First of all, because we are independent people. We have a political line defined toward reconciliation among all Cubans including the government."
Espinosa is not in agreement with the Assembly's support for the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, nor with President Bush's tightening of the travel regulations that now allow Cuban Americans to visit their relatives on the island only once every three years. "President Bush made a mistake. It doesn't contribute to the reconciliation," he concluded.
Another prominent dissident missing from the gathering is Oswaldo Paya, who heads the Christian Liberation Movement that spearheaded the Varela Project petition campaign for political and economic changes. Paya accuses Roque, Bonne and Gomez of sabotaging his work and of playing a divisive role that parallels that of State Security.
"I think that the persons running the Assembly have been collaborators, in a very amoral way ... you can't trust them ...we are not going to the Assembly, we think it's a fraud," he said.
"There may be members of the opposition who attend the Assembly but it is not an assembly of the opposition," he stressed, noting that nearly 50 of the 75 arrested in 2003 were Varela Project supporters and that the majority of them are still in prison. Paya questions how they managed to gain prison parole while his members remain behind bars.
While a great deal of time was devoted to organizational questions, the Assembly is also addressing the arduous task of unifying Cuba's splintered opposition.
Vladimiro Roca, representing the group Todos Unidos, told the gathering that while there are differences among the various opposition groups they should be discussed "in private, never publicly." He added, in an oblique reference to Paya, "never attacking an opposition figure, even if we're not in agreement with them."