Cuba expels visiting politicians on eve of dissident meeting

Cuba was the target of fierce criticism from European governments after it summarily expelled two visiting politicians, one from Germany, the other from the Czech Republic, on the eve of a gathering in Havana of dissident opponents to the communist regime of President Fidel Castro.

Karel Schwarzenberg, the Czech senator, and the German parliamentarian Arnold Vaatz, were seized by security agents at their hotel on Thursday and escorted to Havana's airport to fly back to Europe. The action prompted formal objections yesterday from German and Czech officials.

This latest drama came at the end of especially tense week. About 500 dissidents are expected to attend the Assembly for the Promotion of Civil Society in Cuba. Barring a last-minute crackdown, it was due to take place in the back garden of Felix Bonne, a veteran critic of President Castro. It was described as the largest such meeting of anti-regime activists ever held since Castro came to power.

On Monday, President Castro led a march of tens of thousands through the capital to protest against the presence in the US of one of his oldest foes, Luis Posada Carriles. Mr Posada is wanted in Venezuela, increasingly a Cuban ally, in connection with the 1973 downing of a Cuban airliner . He has since been arrested and charged with illegally entering the US.

The President was fairly quiet through the week about the dissidents' meeting, which both the men had been planning to attend. Earlier in the week, Cuba also refused to allow entry to two Polish members of the European Parliament.

In a statement, the Czech foreign ministry called Cuba's action "unacceptable", adding that Havana had no interest in continuing "a constructive dialogue with the EU". In Brussels, the development commissioner, Louis Michel, called the expulsions "highly regrettable ... Even the best friends of Cuba will now find it difficult to maintain their position," he said. While most European governments have tended to look on Cuba with a slightly more sympathetic eye than the US does, relations have been tense since President Castro imprisoned 75 dissidents in March 2003. Soon after, Cuba executed three ferry hi-jackers.

Four months ago, however, the EU relaxed sanctions against the island imposed after the crackdown.

Senator Schwarzenberg told the Associated Press as he boarded plane for Paris on Thursday evening: "I did nothing against the law. They just didn't like the people I was visiting. I'm sure it's in connection with the assembly." Among those due at the assembly was Martha Beatriz Roque, who was one of the 75 rounded up two years ago. She was released by the government on medical grounds.