By Andrew Cawthorne
HAVANA (Reuters) - About 30 opponents of President Fidel Castro's Communist government staged a peaceful and highly unusual protest march on Saturday through a Havana suburb to demand freedom for political prisoners in Cuba.
``Thank God we pulled it off. This is how, bit by bit, we are going to win the space that belongs to us,'' one dissident, Migdalia Rosado, said after the uninterrupted half-hour protest in the run-down Parraga district.
The demonstrators, all members of Cuba's small dissident groups, gathered after morning Mass on the steps of Parraga's Roman Catholic church before marching about six blocks to another church.
Unlike other recent opposition gatherings, there was no chanting of slogans or waving of banners. Instead, the marchers carried out the protest mainly in silence, apart from quietly intoning a religious hymn twice.
``This man (Castro) has maintained a dictatorship here for 40 years. He has to go. It's enough for one man to go, no one else,'' said demonstrator Iovany Aguilar Canejo, a member of the Fraternal Brothers for Dignity Movement.
Although technically illegal under Cuba's penal code, which outlaws opposition groups and unauthorized public gatherings, government officials monitoring the event did not intervene.
Nor was there any confrontation between the dissidents and pro-Castro sympathizers, as occurred the last time activists sought to organize a march Nov. 10 in Havana's Dolores Park.
The dissidents, however, said that at least a dozen opposition members intending to take part in Saturday's march had been temporarily detained or ordered to stay in their homes by Cuba's state security. Officials could not confirm that.
Cuba's independent Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation said later Saturday it had confirmed with relatives the arrest of at least nine dissidents prior to the march, while ``various'' others had been told to stay at home.
``It seems they temporarily detained the most active people to try and lower the tone of the demonstration, to limit it,'' the rights' group's president Elizardo Sanchez, said. The dissidents had not been released by Saturday afternoon.
Participants claimed the peaceful completion of an opposition march in Havana was unprecedented in recent years.
``There are no banners here, no shouting, no bad words, no reason for anyone to get upset,'' another demonstrator, Carlos Alberto Dominguez, head of the November 30 Democratic Party, said during the protest.
Freedom Demanded For Political Prisoners
``We are simply marching together because we want to make use of our right, as people, to walk through the streets of Cuba. Why not?'' he added in comments to the roughly dozen foreign correspondents covering the event.
The dissidents said the specific reasons for the march were to call for the freedom of political prisoners in Cuba and denounce alleged human rights abuses by Castro's government. Opposition groups say there are around 400 political prisoners.
Havana denies the existence of political prisoners. It says all inmates are there for legitimate reasons, such as so-called counter-revolutionary crimes stipulated in the penal code.
Cuba routinely denounces all dissidents as mercenaries and traitors serving both the U.S. government and anti-Castro Cuban exile groups in Florida.
The government also rejects criticism of rights abuses. It says that unlike other nations in Latin America, Cuba does not torture people or make them disappear, while its social policies cover basic rights to education and health that are widely neglected elsewhere.
The demonstrators did not agree, arguing that the exceptional nature of their protest was proof of how little freedom of expression there was in Cuba.
The march was the latest in a series of recent low-profile activities by Cuban dissidents, who appear emboldened by the attention they received from foreign dignitaries during last month's Ibero-American Summit in Havana.
The hands-off approach by authorities to Saturday's march was a change of tactic from a government perhaps mindful of criticism from abroad for its treatment of dissidents.