HAVANA -- In a nation dominated for generations by President Fidel Castro and the Communist Party, one group is emerging as a refuge for those chafing under the constraints of daily life on this Caribbean island.
Widely popular before the 1959 revolution, Cuba's Masons suffered a precipitous decline in ensuing decades, but the group has since recovered its appeal, as some Cubans look for an alternative to the uniformity inherent in the nation's one-party system.
Membership in the all-male group has soared from about 21,000 here in 1990 to nearly 30,000, even as the number of Masons and other fraternal group members in the United States and elsewhere declined during the same period.
United by a belief in a supreme being and a strict code of moral conduct, Cuba's Masons, like the island's Roman Catholic Church, managed to carve out a limited and precarious autonomy by carefully avoiding open confrontation with Cuban authorities.
Cuba's Masons say that discussions about democracy, human rights, abortion, globalization, cloning, and other issues of the day are common, though members refrain from talking about the island's politics inside the nation's 316 lodges, or meeting places.
Some Masons say the organization has a history of promoting civil liberties and could play a role in Cuba's political future, even as top Masonic officials explain that their mission is to foster ethical conduct and brotherhood.
Already the group risks getting sucked into the battle between Cuban authorities and the island's weak and divided dissident movement. For example, twelve of the 75 opposition figures imprisoned by Cuban authorities in a sweep in 2003 were Freemasons.
All but one of them, independent journalist Jorge Olivera, remains incarcerated.
''In Masonry, everybody has the right to think freely, and your point of view is respected," said Arnaldo Gonzalez, Cuba's top Masonic official. ''Dissidents and nondissidents are the same."
Such tolerance is a powerful draw to many Cuban opposition figures who are ostracized from mainstream life.
''I'm treated as a persona non grata by the Cuban government, like I'm the living dead," said Olivera, standing at the entrance to the Grand Lodge of Cuba, the island's Masonic headquarters. ''But I haven't felt any discrimination here. I feel part of a fraternity."
But even nondissidents say they feel a sense of freedom inside their Masonic lodge. One 46-year-old Mason who joined the group eight years ago said he was tired of Cuban authorities ''imposing ideas" on society.
''They don't allow differing opinions or another form of thinking," said the Mason, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retribution. ''There comes a moment when you need to relieve this pressure. The lodge is a place for me to freely express my point of view."
Mark Falcoff -- a Latin American scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington -- said the Masons' nonconfrontational approach toward authorities has allowed the group to survive independently in a system where most civic groups are affiliated with the government.
He said the Masons provide an important outlet for Cubans critical of Castro but unwilling to openly dissent.
''It's a tactic to attract people who do not want to get into trouble, but at the same time wish to be free," Falcoff said. ''It's an attempt to split the difference."
French planters fleeing Haiti's slave insurrection brought Masonry, which is believed to have emerged from Europe's medieval guilds, to Cuba in the 19th century.
Masons claim Cuban independence heroes Jose Marti, Antonio Maceo, and Maximo Gomez as members, along with South American liberator Simon Bolivar, Mexican hero Benito Juarez, and US Presidents George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman.
Officials say Masonry's popularity dropped sharply after the Cuban revolution, because many members fled into exile or became swept up by the promise of the new socialist government. Interest in Masonry surged again in the early 1990s, when Cuba suffered an economic crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the island's main trading partner.
''People were looking for new answers to their problems that they didn't get in the official discourse," said Gustavo Pardo, president of the National Commission of Masonic Teachings.
Pardo said Cuban authorities also eased some restrictions on the Masons, allowing them to carry out public ceremonies and open two new lodges in recent years, the first since 1967.
Yet, the group still needs government permission for activities like laying a wreath at the foot of a statue of a famous Mason or publishing a pamphlet of Masonic teachings.