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Cuba Dissidents Meet as Havana Expels EU Delegation

People shout "Liberty" at the entrance to an opposition rally in Havana
About 200 Cuban dissidents held their first large-scale gathering in more than two years on Friday. The meeting took place as Cuba expelled two European Union members of parliament who had traveled to the Communist run island to attend the meeting.

Cuban dissidents, joined by foreign diplomatic observers met Friday in a Havana suburb to discuss bringing democracy to Cuba. The meeting was the first large gathering of dissidents in Cuba since a crackdown two years ago by the Cuban government that sent 75 dissidents and independent journalists to jail.

The meeting, called the Assembly for the Promotion of Civil Society in Cuba opened without significant interference from Cuban authorities. However, organizer Martha Beatriz Roque, told the Associated Press that a number of dissidents from other parts of Cuba declined to attend the meeting after being summoned to local police stations on Friday. Cuban authorities also prevented a representative from the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation from entering the country.

Antonio Jorge, a professor of International Relations at Florida International University in Miami says the meeting is a rare example of a political opening on the communist-run island.

"Well, I think it is definitely a cause for optimism to see different delegates from different organizations groups and so on with different viewpoints and different ideological positions have come together to protest publicly the state of affairs in Cuba," said Antonio Jorge. "And to protest the dictatorial regime that has been in power 46 years, without allowing any opposition, much less any kind of consultation or electoral process. "

Among those attending the meeting, which opened on Cuba's Independence Day was James Cason, the chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Mr. Cason told the Associated Press he was there as an observer. He called the meeting "an exercise in grass roots democracy, saying the meeting was about Cubans discussing, in their own country, their future."

The U.S. Congress recently passed a resolution supporting the meeting. Cuban authorities accuse U.S. diplomats of supporting Cuban dissidents by funding their activities, a charge U.S. diplomats strongly deny.

Not in attendance at the meeting was Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, who heads the Christian Liberation Movement, which is closely associated with the Catholic-church sponsored Varela Project. Mr. Paya criticized the meeting saying its organizers refuse to negotiate with the Cuban government.

On the eve of the meeting, Cuban authorities expelled two members of the European Union Parliament, one from Germany and other from the Czech Republic. They had traveled to Cuba to attend the event. Earlier in the week, Cuban authorities blocked two Polish parliamentarians from entering the country to attend the meeting.

Antonio Jorge of FIU says Cuba's leader Fidel Castro has long made it clear that he has little regard for the European Union.

"Castro has explicitly stated that Cuba does not need the humanitarian aid of the European Union, that Cuba can do very well without it," he said. "So I guess this simply confirms his disregard for the European Union."

European Union officials expressed anger over the expulsions. A statement from the EU called the expulsions unacceptable. European Union Foreign Ministers meet in June to decide whether to continue their current diplomatic dialogue with Cuba, or whether to re-impose diplomatic sanctions because of Cuba's human rights policies.