- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

Oswaldo Paya, Cuba's best-known dissident and a leading candidate for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, said yesterday that Cuban freedom will not be determined by the lifting or tightening of the U.S. economic embargo on the island nation, but by its own people.
"I did not come here to lobby or petition the U.S. government to take any kind of measure regarding Cuba," Mr. Paya told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.
"Until now, the mentality has been that the embargo will achieve this change, or having trade and tourists will achieve that. I call that the Americanization of the Cuba problem," he said. "The changes in Cuba should be brought about by ourselves. It is for the Cubans to decide."
Mr. Paya's willingness to work for reforms within Cuba's communist political system and calls to end the 40-year-old U.S. embargo have won him critics among Cuban Americans. He said his work is proof that Cubans are overcoming their fear of the country's Marxist dictatorship.
At 50, he has been imprisoned numerous times for his Catholic nonviolent opposition politics in Cuba. He came to international prominence in 2001 when he initiated the Varela Project, named for an early-19th-century Cuban patriot and priest, Felix Varela. The Varela Project used an obscure section of Cuba's communist constitution that promises a referendum on any issue if supporters can gather 10,000 names.
Mr. Paya's organization gathered 20,000 names on the issue of democratic and human rights, and presented 11,000 signatures to the Cuban government. After former President Jimmy Carter spoke of the Varela Project on Cuban television in the spring, Cuban President Fidel Castro denounced the project as counterrevolutionary, jailed a number of its promoters and organized a hasty petition of his own to enshrine socialism in the Cuban Constitution.
Mr. Paya said that while Mr. Carter's visit to Cuba was criticized outside the country, it was helpful to the dissident community within, primarily because he announced the Varela Project on Cuban television.
"We are very radical, but nonviolent. The Cuban government is afraid of the Varela Project because it shows that the Cuban people are capable of organizing and mobilizing for change," Mr. Paya said, adding that signatures are still being collected.
Mr. Paya is on the last leg of a whirlwind tour of U.S. and European capitals.
Last month, he was in Strasbourg, France, to receive the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, Europe's most prestigious human rights award. On Monday, he was in Washington to meet with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and to receive the National Democratic Institute's highest award. On Wednesday, he was off to Rome for an audience with Pope John Paul II. Before returning to Cuba, he will fly into Miami this weekend to hear a mix of support and criticism in the Cuban-American community regarding the validity of the Varela Project.
"One view says we should not work within the existing political system, because that legitimizes the regime," said Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuba specialist at the University of Miami, which has announced plans to award Mr. Paya an honorary degree for his human rights work this spring. "My view is that we should use him. He has unified everyone on the issue of human rights."
The Cuban American National Foundation, Miami's largest and best-funded exile organization, differs with Mr. Paya on some aspects of the Varela Project, but supports the general direction.
"We stand and work with everyone working in good faith to bring change in Cuba," foundation spokesman Joe Garcia said yesterday. "There are things in the Varela Project we would do differently, but he is a warrior for Cuban freedom. He is an ally in the struggle."
The Cuban Liberty Council, a hard-line organization that split from the foundation when some members perceived it as going soft, opposes Mr. Paya for saying in earlier speeches that the U.S. embargo is counterproductive and should be lifted.
"When someone like Paya travels outside Cuba and says the embargo should be lifted, that does little to help human rights in Cuba and only helps the Cuban dictatorship," said spokeswoman Ninoska Perez-Castellon from Miami yesterday.
Cuban-American members of Congress plan to meet Mr. Paya in Miami early next week.
"I have strong reservations about the Varela Project, because it works within the Cuban Constitution, which is illegitimate," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, from Miami yesterday. "But Oswaldo Paya is a valiant fighter for freedom and human rights. I'd be honored to meet him."
Mr. Paya has been nominated by former Czech President Vaclav Havel for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize.
"Symbolically, the Sakharov Prize was very big," Mr. Suchlicki said. "The Nobel Prize? He has a chance."


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