Dissident in Cuba wins key rights award

Oswaldo PayÍ Sardiúas

Sakharov Prize goes to Payá

In a major boost for Cuba's beleaguered dissident movement, the European Union on Wednesday named Oswaldo Payá Sardińas winner of the prestigious Sakharov Prize, an award given annually to an internationally recognized human rights leader.

For the European leadership, once loath to criticize Cuba's communist government, the decision confirms a significant change in attitude toward Fidel Castro that has been building for some time and an implicit message that democratic reform is overdue.

Payá, coordinator of the Varela Project -- a referendum initiative seeking sweeping changes in the four-decade-old socialist system -- accepted the European Parliament's 2002 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in the name of all dissidents.

''The European Union now sympathizes with Cuba's struggle,'' Payá, 50, said by telephone from Havana. ``I accept this in the name of all those, inside and outside of Cuba, who fight for peaceful changes.

''For a long time, we complained that nobody was listening,'' Payá said. ``Now, we are finally being heard.''

Other government opponents within Cuba also were delighted with the honor.

''This is exceptional news,'' said Héctor Palacios of the Democratic Solidarity Party, another dissident group. ``It's a recognition of a peaceful struggle to bring solutions to the grave problems in this country. It's reinforces our optimism and gives our struggle worldwide recognition.''

Vladimiro Roca, who was released from jail in May after serving nearly five years on charges of sedition, said the award gives credibility to the dissident movement on the island.

''It puts us on a high level and summons the government to respond to Project Varela,'' Roca said. ``Its puts the issue on an international platform.''

The recognition places Payá within the circle of some the most internationally respected human rights crusaders, including former South African President Nelson Mandela; Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi; and Argentina's human rights movement, Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo.


The prize will be formally awarded on Dec. 18, during a plenary session in Strasbourg, France, the Parliament's Conference of Presidents said.

Graham Watson, Leader of the Liberal Group in the European Parliament, said Payá was deemed worthy of the award because ``he has made an outstanding contribution in seeking a nonviolent way to change . . . a very oppressive regime.''

''He is trying to seek dialogue and, as a result, he is highlighting the hypocrisy,'' of Castro's government, Watson said in a telephone interview. ``Payá will be invited to come to receive this award and the Cuban government will have to decide whether to give him a visa or not allow him to come here and address the assembly.''

``If they don't give him the visa, it will highlight the lack of democracy in Cuba.''

The prize, named after the late-Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, has been issued yearly since 1988 to people who defend human rights and democracy. Most, if not all, of the previous recipients have condemned regimes in places such as China and Angola.

Joaquin Roy, co-director of the European Union Center, a joint think-tank between the University of Miami and Florida International University, characterized the award as ''a symbolic slap on the face'' to Castro's regime.

The award serves as reaffirmation of the EU's long-standing support of human rights and the call for democracy in Cuba. The EU has been equally as critical of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

Over the past decade, the EU has admonished Cuba for its human rights record, but the Sakharov award represents a new level of condemnation.

''It's a collateral sign that [the Europeans] would elect to endorse and support change from inside Cuba,'' Roy said. ``Change from within, instead of change being forced from the outside.''

Payá has already received international recognition.

Former President Jimmy Carter brought the Varela Project to the forefront during his visit to the island this summer and Czech President Vaclav Havel has promoted Payá for the Nobel Peace Prize. Last month, Payá also was honored by the National Democratic Institute, becoming the first Cuban to receive that award.

''This is a growing recognition on the part of the international community for Payá and the Varela Project and its movement,'' Ken Wollack, institute president, said of the Sakharov Prize. ''Now, it resonates among democrats of the world and the community of democracy,'' he said.

''Awards like this help break a sense of isolation and loneliness for those struggling on the ground,'' Wollack said. ``It also provides a form of protection by shining an international spotlight.''


Payá founded Cuba's Christian Liberation Movement in 1987. The nonviolent, nondenominational opposition movement calls for deep political and economic changes in Cuba's socialist system.

Payá also serves as coordinator of the Varela Project, an island-wide petition drive aimed at forcing a national referendum for political and economic reforms by asking voters if they favor guarantees for basic civil rights such as freedom of speech and private ownership of a business, broad electoral reforms, and freedom for political prisoners.

In May, organizers turned in 11,020 signatures asking Cuba's National Assembly for a voter's initiative on the proposed referendum. The Cuban Constitution requires 10,000 signatures.

The National Assembly, which was to convene in July, suspended its session and has not responded. Castro, however, said in a TV interview with Barbara Walters that an answer to the Varela Project would come ``in due course.''

Supporters of the project said the time is now.

Born in Havana on February 29, 1952, Paya is an electrical engineer.

He has been detained numerous times as a result of his openly critical attitude toward the regime.

He has repeatedly called for profound changes toward democracy in Cuban society.