Cuba's Lonely Dissident

Cuban opposition leader Oswaldo Paya, 2004/1/23
AP
By CBS News Producer Portia Siegelbaum

Oswaldo Paya's struggle for democracy in Cuba is so lonely that he can't even count on the support of Florida's Cuban American community.

Paya, leader of the unofficial opposition Christian Liberation Movement, is author of the first major non-governmental petition circulated since Fidel Castro ousted Batista in 1959.

The petition known as the Varela Project calls for a referendum on peaceful political, economic and social changes in Cuba. Initially it garnered 11,020 signatures but by persistent efforts that number has risen to 25,000.

Nonetheless the signature campaign is an uphill battle. Paya claims, "We're in a competition with State Security."

According to Paya, when his supporters revisit those who have already signed the petition, they discover that government agents have already been there.

"They threaten them. They ask them to retract," he says. "They speak ill of me." Moreover, according to Paya, State Security agents are now showing up "wearing the American flag on their chest" and impersonating Varela Project supporters.

On the surface his cause appears to be one that anti-Castro Cuban Americans would support but the battle between two front-runners in the recent Florida GOP primary for the U.S. Senate showed that not to be the case.

The winner of the Republican nomination, ex-Housing Secretary and Cuban American Mel Martinez, was attacked by the other front-runner, former Congressman Bill McCollum as a supporter of Paya and his Varela Project.

It was in the final days of their campaigns when they'd nearly run out of issues to disagree on that their one remaining discrepancy emerged: democracy in Cuba. McCollum wooing South Florida's Cuban American voters tried to link his opponent with the democracy advocate on the island.

As they crossed words, McCollum described Paya's Varela Project as "a terrible undemocratic policy that I would never support". While Martinez, distancing himself from Paya, told voters, "The Varela Project is not the answer to Cuba's problems."

The reason neither McCollum nor Martinez wanted to be linked to Paya is that there are Cuban-American voters in Miami who question the dissident because he is trying to reform from within Cuba's socialist system, giving de facto legitimacy to the political institutions set up by Castro's revolution.

The Cuban Constitution specifies that any petition with a minimum of 10,000 valid signatures will be considered by the appropriate parliamentary committee for action. In May 2002 Paya and Varela Project advocates hand carried the petitions stacked in cardboard boxes to the Cuban parliament where it was accepted at the door but killed in committee.

Ignoring his critics Paya insists he doesn't want to get caught up in the U.S. elections, preferring to focus on his own democracy project.

"I'm not a Democrat or a Republic. I'm a Cuban and what I want is for Cubans to have their own parties and their own free elections," he said.

In July, a live telephone interview with him by Miami's Channel 23 Spanish language station ended with Paya abruptly slamming down the phone but not before he reminded the critical journalists that they were sitting comfortably in Miami not facing harassment and repression in Havana like he is.

None of this slows him down. Paya, engaged in collecting still more signatures on his petition, issued a challenge to the Cuban Government: "Why don't you acknowledge to the Cuban people that it is their constitutional right to sign the Varela Project and ask for a referendum. "

The answer says Paya "is that millions of Cubans would sign, more than in Venezuela", a reference to the recent petition drive for a referendum to oust President Hugo Chavez.

American observers say the Cuban Government is very concerned about the tens of thousands of Cubans who have signed the Varela Project, noting that something between a third and a half of the 75 convicted in the May 2003 arrests and trials of dissidents had links with the Varela Project.

To further thwart his campaign, Paya charges that State Security "infiltrated false signatures" on the petition, making it necessary to recheck all 25,000 names.

Have Cuban intelligence agents penetrated his petition drive? According to a U.S. official who asked not to be named, you can expect anything from Havana. "In Cuba, we always remember that Cuban secret police have agents everywhere, including among the community of pro-democracy activists."

While steering clear of commenting on the U.S. elections and sidestepping an opportunity to criticize the Bush Administration for its latest restrictions on travel to Cuba, Paya did note the timing of the measures "seems to coincide with the elections".

Bush was widely accused of setting policy according to what could win him votes among South Florida's wealthy, conservative Cuban American elite and not according to what's best for Cubans living under Castro when he issued the new travel rules limiting family visits to once every three years and severely reducing the amount of money Cuban Americans can spend on the island.

The tightened policy was recommended by the Bush Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, co-chaired by Secretary of State Colin Powell and the former Housing Secretary. Mentioning this in his speech to the Republican National Convention last week, Martinez said, "Because of the President's steadfast commitment to democracy, we now have the first comprehensive Cuba policy in over 40 years."

That policy includes a transition program for a post-Castro Cuba, one point on which Paya was willing to diverge from U.S. policy. He wanted the Bush Administration to know "We are elaborating our own transition program…the transition has to be designed and acted out by us, the Cubans themselves and afterwards the United States will ask if we want cooperation, as the Europeans will do."

While his name and the name of his democracy petition are household names in South Florida, Paya is barred from publicizing his ideas in the Cuban press. The only mention the Varela Project has ever received in the State-controlled media came when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter praised the effort during his May 2002 visit to the island. Carter met with Paya and other dissidents during his stay.

That same year, the Cuban Government allowed Paya to travel to Washington to receive the 2002 W. Averill Harriman Democracy Award, in the presence he told us, of former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and Senator John Nelson.

Paya continues to receive what he calls "expressions of support from parliaments, such as the European Parliament and the U.S. Senate on behalf of the Varela Project." When we arrived for our interview with Paya, we interrupted a meeting he was having with two unidentified European diplomats in the kitchen of his home.

Paya says the support is for peaceful change in the island. "The issue is not to wait for Fidel Castro to die but to begin to construct peaceful changes as of now, or there won't be peaceful change."

Paya hopes his Varela project will galvanize Cuban voters on the island. However, with every vote counting in a tight U.S. presidential race both the Democrats and the Republicans are currently courting Florida's 450,000 Cuban American registered voters, hoping their positions on this foreign policy issue will swing the election for their camp.