Posted on Thu, Jan. 09, 2003 The Miami Herald story:PUB_DESC
Meeting of Powell, Cuban activist signals change
U.S. lessens its focus on exiles, looking to reformers on island
Commentary   -  Andres Oppenheimer

The most interesting thing about U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's meeting with Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá this week in Washington may not be that it was a first of its kind, or that the U.S. secretary of state later stated his ''admiration'' for the Cuban pro-democracy activist.

What was even more remarkable was that Powell's high-profile meeting happened to be with a Cuban dissident who does not support the U.S. embargo against the island, preaches national reconciliation in Cuba and who is viewed with skepticism by the most hard-line wing of Miami's Cuban exile community.

Judging by what I hear from senior Bush administration officials, the meeting did not mark any change in the administration's support of U.S. economic sanctions against the island. But it does mark a change in the direction of the U.S. government's Cuba policy, in which the United States is increasingly listening to pro-democracy voices from inside Cuba and not just to Cuban exile voices in Miami.

''This is a reaffirmation that change will come from inside Cuba,'' one well-placed Bush administration official told me after the Powell-Payá meeting. ``It is a visible sign of support for people in Cuba who are working for rapid, peaceful change for democracy on the island.''

Another official, State Department spokesman Charles Barclay, told me: ``There has been a change in the political landscape in Cuba. We are seeing the emergence of a civil society that is finding expression in initiatives such as the Varela Project as well as the work of other Cuban dissidents.''

In a way, the new trend in Washington is a reflection of a significant change in Miami's Cuban exile politics. Increasingly, Miami exiles see their role as one of support for pro-democracy groups on the island, and not as one of ``saviors of the fatherland.''

According to a poll by Bendixen and Associates released last month, 68 percent of Miami's Cuban exiles support Payá's Varela Project, which calls for a pro-democracy referendum in Cuba within the framework of the island's Communist constitution. Only 9 percent oppose the Varela Project, on grounds that it may not guarantee a radical change in Cuba.

''That's a radical change from five years ago, when a majority in the Cuban exile community thought that the solution to bring about democratic change in Cuba lies in Miami,'' said Sergio Bendixen, head of the firm that conducted the poll.

What has happened? Two major developments -- the emergence of a grass-roots pro-democracy movement in Cuba and the arrival of new generations of Cubans in Miami -- are rapidly changing Cuban exile politics.


The Varela Project organizers, taking advantage of a clause in the Cuban Constitution allowing for petitions with at least 10,000 signatures to be presented to the National Assembly, submitted the referendum request with 11,000 signatures to the Cuban regime last year.

The Varela Project has since gathered more than 30,000 signatures in Cuba.

Human rights groups say there are now more pro-democracy activists in Cuba on a per capita basis than there ever were in the former Soviet Union or Poland.

At the same time, Miami's demographic profile has been changed significantly with the arrival of up to 20,000 Cubans a year since a 1994 U.S.-Cuba migration agreement. Most of the estimated 250,000 new arrivals are young men and women who have family and friends in Cuba -- and who don't want a violent solution to the Cuban drama.

Interestingly, the Cuban American National Foundation, the largest Cuban exile group, is now backing the Varela Project, despite its reservations about Payá's views on the embargo. Hard-line former members of CANF recently formed their own group, the Cuban Liberty Council, which does not back the Varela Project.

Most likely, as Payá's international recognition grows, so will U.S. and Cuban-exile support for his message of national reconciliation.

Payá -- who was allowed to leave Cuba for the first time last month to receive the European Parliament's Sakharov prize, Europe's most prestigious human rights award -- has been received by Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar and met briefly with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican on Wednesday. Payá is said to be a leading candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize over the next two years.


He is on the right track. Recent history -- including the 1988 referendum against Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the 1990 elections in Nicaragua that toppled the Sandinista regime -- shows that in most cases the best way to topple a dictatorship is by taking advantage of whatever legal avenues there are within the system.

My humble prediction: In the future, no matter whether the Republicans or Democrats are in the White House, Washington will pay growing attention to pro-democracy voices from within the island. Which is what it should always have done.