Posted on Fri, Jan. 10, 2003 THE MIAMI HERALD story:PUB_DESC


Cuba's dissident movement has come a long way. Consider prominent opposition leader Oswaldo Payá's visits with Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington, D.C., and Pope John Paul II at the Vatican this week. This after having accepted the European Parliament's prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and meeting with Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar in Madrid. No longer is Cuba's opposition in the shadows.

Mr. Payá has drawn unprecedented international attention to the human-rights abuses of the Cuban regime. He and other increasingly vocal opposition leaders effectively are pushing for democratic change within Cuba and strengthening its civil society in the process. The opposition represents the future hope for Cuba, which is why it has gained legitimacy in the eyes of the international community even as Fidel Castro's repressive regime has lost it.

Now more than ever, Cuba's internal opposition leaders deserve support. Cuba's transition and solutions will come from within.

Perhaps the best known push for change is the Varela Project championed by Mr. Payá. Organizers garnered 11,020 signatures seeking a referendum on human rights, free elections and release of political prisoners. Publicized by former President Jimmy Carter when he spoke publicly in Cuba, the project has spawned hope throughout the island.

A coalition of some 150 opposition groups called Todos Unidos (All United) recently published 36 reforms needed to solve Cuba's crisis. Announced by Vladimiro Roca, along with Elizardo Sánchez and Héctor Palacios -- all veteran activists persecuted by the regime -- the reforms include the right to own a home and car, to run a private business and to be employed privately. All these ideas inspire debate and strengthen popular support for democracy.

Martha Beatriz Roque, a former political prisoner, leads another coalition called the Assembly for the Promotion of Civil Society. This week the assembly called for Cubans to express their dissatisfaction with the system in upcoming National Assembly ''elections'' by abstaining or turning in a defaced or blank ballot. Such a critique of the electoral process, in which regime-sponsored candidates are the only choice, highlights its lack of legitimacy.

Yet another coalition of the ''Moderate Opposition'' is circulating a declaration of ''fundamental human rights and responsibilities.'' Its aim is to solicit grass-roots opinions and, in the process, build civic thinking and participation. Add to this numerous independent libraries, labor activists, church groups and other activists working toward a democratic and civic-minded society.

Yes, there are disagreements among Cuba's opposition members and their supporters in exile -- mostly related to positions on the U.S. embargo and whether an approach includes dialogue with the current regime. Different opinions are the fodder of democratic debate. In the end, however, all must keep their eyes on the prize -- a peaceful transition toward democracy.

The opposition has come far since 1996, when Cuba's regime viciously disabled the coalition of more than 100 dissident groups known as the Concilio Cubano and there was little international consternation. Today the regime is morally and economically corrupt. Opposition leaders like Mr. Payá, who meets with heads of state, have put Cuba's struggle for freedom in the spotlight.