``We are calling this public protest to draw attention to the violation of human rights in Cuba and to ask for the freedom of all political prisoners,'' said Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, who hunger strikers said was the lead organizer of the protest. ``There is no freedom of expression or of association in Cuba.''
Standing in the front room of an apartment plastered with black and white posters of Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and even the late Cuban-American exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa, the hunger strikers said most of them were prepared to live only on water and other liquids for up to 40 days.
``We are willing to face whatever is necessary for something as beautiful as freedom,'' said Marcos Lazaro Torres Leon, acknowledging that he and the others faced almost certain arrest. ``Because to live without freedom is not to live at all.''
It was the boldest demonstration by Cuba's often-timid opposition since a coalition of dissident leaders held a news conference with foreign journalists two years ago. Those four recently were convicted on sedition charges and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to five years.
There was no immediate response from the government on the latest protest.
``The Foreign Ministry has no knowledge of this event,'' said Foreign Ministry spokesman Alejandro Gonzalez, among the few officials allowed to respond to reporters queries.
The communist government says there are no political prisoners in Cuba and denies that the government violates human rights. The opposition groups involved in the hunger strike are illegal under Cuban law.
Most protesters wore T-shirts with either an anti-abortion message or a list of people they identified as prisoners of conscience. They said that dissidents in other communities around Cuba were holding similar protests.
Rarely do Cuba's dissident groups work together or do more than issue an occasional statement. The last time opposition members called foreign journalists for a news conference, one dissident group attacked another, accusing it of not sharing funds donated by groups outside Cuba.
``This is an extraordinary event, because we are united,'' said Carlos Alberto Dominguez, of the 30th of November Democratic Party.
Other groups involved are the Martiana Civic League, named for independence hero Jose Marti; the National Civic Union; Naturpaz, an ecological group; and the Lawton Foundation, named for the Havana neighborhood where its was formed.
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press