Posted on Tue, Jan. 14, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Dissident makes progress in building consensus

With the legitimacy freshly conferred on him by Europe's top human-rights award and a warm meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Cuban opposition leader Oswaldo Payá Sardińas waded into the political cauldron of exile Miami seeking what has eluded others in the past: unified support for a blueprint for peaceful democratization on the island.

He leaves today having made some undeniable strides.

Payá was embraced by Miami auxiliary Bishop Agustín Román, an influential voice in the exile community, who called the dissident's Christian Liberation Movement ``the first real opposition movement on the island.''

The Cuban American National Foundation provided logistical help for Payá's whirlwind tour of Miami and is taking out a full-page ad in support of his Varela Project in El Nuevo Herald today. Payá got a standing ovation from a diverse audience of about 200 exiles in a church hall, most of whom favor a peaceful transition in Cuba.

Apart from denunciations from hard-line exile radio commentators and a small anti-Payá rally in Little Havana, he received a respectful hearing nearly everywhere he went.

Even some of the most conservative forces in the exile community, including three Cuban American members of Congress from South Florida, willingly talked to Payá in private meetings. A group of critics who met with him Monday evening declined to support his Varela Project -- an unprecedented drive for a national referendum on open elections, civil liberties, free enterprise and freedom for political prisoners in Cuba.


But supporters said his three-day visit was a watershed event both for Cuba and Miami's exiles, cementing Payá's position as the biggest hope for change in Cuba in many years and a figure capable of unifying the often-squabbling exile community.

''This man is the one who has reached the furthest, who has gotten the most recognition in more than four decades,'' said Cuban American lawyer Rafael Peńalver, who supports Payá's plan despite reservations about some parts. ``What we need now is to unite, and for there not to be one voice of discord. We cannot destroy the messenger.''

Payá might have accomplished a second, under-the-radar goal in coming to Miami: He used the city, and its mass media, as a megaphone for getting word of his project to Cubans on the island. Many there secretly listen to Cuban radio programs and even Miami TV news broadcasts, Payá noted in a meeting with The Herald's Editorial Board. Family members here often relay news in phone calls to relatives in Cuba. Radio Martí, the U.S. government station that broadcasts to Cuba, extensively covered the visit.

Aside from a mention by former President Jimmy Carter on Cuban television during his visit last year, Cuban media have strictly censored any news of Payá's proposal.


Payá said his next step is to spread word of his project beyond the several thousand Cubans he estimates know about it. About 30,000 Cubans have already signed a referendum petition circulated by members of his movement, and last May, 11,000 signatures were turned in to the Cuban National Assembly, which has yet to respond.

One of his main goals, Payá said, is to eliminate fear among Cubans -- fear both of government repression at home, and fear of Miami's exiles which he said are fanned by the Cuban regime.

''I know the majority of Cubans in exile want peaceful change in Cuba. If there is something they can do for us, it's to send this unequivocal message to Cuba,'' Payá said. ``What I would like to contribute is to bring together these two parts of the Cuban people who are separated artificially.''

The referendum proposal calls on the Cuban regime to adhere to its own 1976 constitution and recognize free speech and freedom of assembly. But the effort has drawn suspicion and criticism from some who say it would only confer legitimacy on 44 years of Communist rule without explicitly demanding an end to the one-party state.


''This is the beginning of the process of the creation of a legitimate civil society in Cuba,'' said Dario Moreno, a professor at Florida International University and a specialist on Cuban politics. ``What Payá is proposing is a transition that begins with a proposition that Cuban institutions are legitimate, but they can be reformed to represent a democratic political reality.

''I understand and respect some of the critics, that it's hard to ask of these people that this regime which has caused such disruptions in their lives be considered legitimate,'' Moreno said. ``Even if you're suspicious of this project, you also can't help seeing there may be some hope, this may be an alternative at least worth exploring. What you're beginning to see is a real internal opposition to the regime, an alternative to Castro.''


Not all in Miami were receptive, however.

Sunday morning, Payá met with U.S. Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, all Cuban-American Republicans opposed to negotiations or dialogue with Fidel Castro's regime. Though the meeting was cordial, the politicians said they were not swayed.

''He wants respect for human rights, freedom and democracy,'' Ros-Lehtinen said. ``I think we are going at it in different ways. I don't think the Varela Project is a way to get real, fundamental change.''

Outside Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana, about 30 people crowded around the coffee window for an anti-Payá news conference Monday evening. Earlier in the day, a lone vocal supporter of the Varela Project, Santiago Portal, drew derisive comments as he stood on the sidewalk with a small pro-Payá placard.

''Payá is an agent of Fidel,'' Gustavo Salum yelled.

Portal stood his ground: ''After 44 years, we have a leader. He's fighting where you have to fight, which is inside Cuba. And Cuba now has a voice that is listened to internationally,'' he said.


Some polls suggest Portal's is the majority view.

A poll conducted by Bendixen and Associates for the Cuba Study Group, a pro-Payá group, concluded last month that 68 percent of Miami's Cuban exiles support the Varela Project.

Brothers to the Rescue founder José Basulto, who was among the 200 mostly supportive exiles who met with Payá on Monday morning, said Cuban Americans should view the Varela Project as merely a starting point.

''It is not the end. It is a method,'' Basulto said. ``He's the only one with a plan. We can't do everything at once, but this is a start, a way to begin the process.''