Solidarity, Cuban-Style

The Washington Post
By: Jackson Diehl

Oswaldo Paya, the suddenly acclaimed Cuban dissident who has been traveling through Europe and the United States the past few weeks, gets asked the same questions a lot. Why did Fidel Castro allow you to leave the country, now that you have collected more than 20,000 signatures calling for democracy? You've led an opposition movement for 14 years, so why aren't you in prison? And what's the use, anyway, of a petition campaign seeking a legal referendum in a country where there is no rule of law?

Paya hesitates, smiles ruefully, rubs his forehead. "Let me try to explain," he'll say in his gentle, melodic Spanish. He talks about the relentless persecution he and his family have suffered, of the pervasive fear in Cuba, of the tremendous courage it takes to affix one's signature, address and identity card number to one of his Varela Project petitions. Sometimes he simply throws up his hands. "I don't feel it's up to me to explain why they let me leave this time," he finally told a group of Post editors and reporters who met him here last week. "This is the regime's logic: When you can leave as I have in this case, it's somehow an exceptional event, instead of a natural right to come and go from your own country."

There has always been a way in which those who live outside totalitarian states fail to grasp the logic of their politics -- how much they depend on arbitrary brutality and everyday fear, and how vulnerable they are to people who reject both fear and violence. Now that Cuba has become a crumbling, flyblown museum of what Soviet-style communism was like before its collapse in the last century, dissidents like Paya seem even stranger.

Yet this 50-year-old engineer and devout Catholic is instantly recognizable to anyone who met the democratic revolutionaries of the old Soviet bloc, the seemingly isolated and powerless intellectuals and workers who used to field all the same questions, before they overthrew their governments and became presidents and prime ministers. The Stalinist model of repression eventually seems to produce the same political antibody, in Cuba as well as in Poland and Czechoslovakia -- people who challenge their fellow citizens to join them in establishing independent movements that forswear violence and lay the groundwork for democracy.

"Some people say we just have to wait for Castro to die, but that's no solution," Paya says. "Change can only be brought about by a civic movement of Cubans, acting peacefully. We don't want coups, or armed confrontations, or interventions. The Varela Project is a tool so that people can bring about liberalization in the deepest sense. We will then build on our project as a nation.

"This is a process of reconciliation among Cubans who before criticized each other, or spied on each other, or were afraid of each other. It is a process of re-identification of people as brothers."

The Polish Solidarity movement, based on the same idea, eventually triumphed by agreeing to participate in the regime's own parliamentary elections. In Chile, an opposition movement that failed to oust dictator Augusto Pinochet with street demonstrations finally beat him by organizing a broad movement to outvote him in his own referendum. With Chile in mind, Paya has confounded Castro by creating a campaign whose purpose is to take advantage of a provision included in the dictator's own constitution, one that obliges the National Assembly to consider staging a referendum if 10,000 citizens ask for one. Paya's referendum would authorize free elections, free speech and assembly, private property and the release of all political prisoners.

Castro responded by dragooning 8 million Cubans into signing his own petition, purporting to make socialism in Cuba "irreversible." But his assembly still hasn't voted on the Varela petitions, as the constitution requires. So Paya goes on collecting signatures. His movement now has organizing committees in most large Cuban towns, and it aspires to spread to every municipality.

Some hard-line Castro opponents, in Cuba and in Miami, also don't get it. Still dreaming of invasions or popular revolutions that will overthrow the regime, they chastise Paya for following constitutional procedures -- even if his referendum would neatly disembowel the system. But in four decades of trying, the old school has never gathered 21,000 people together against Castro -- much less gotten them to publicly identify themselves. Nor has it built a civil society, the foundation of any future democracy. "Each small piece of paper represents bravery and courage; every signature is an act of liberation," Paya says.

One person who does understand is Vaclav Havel, the former dissident who became president of the Czech Republic -- and who has now nominated Paya for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. Paya was recently awarded the European Parliament's Andrei Sakharov prize -- which is why Castro had to give him an exit visa. In the past few weeks he has met European prime ministers, the pope and Secretary of State Colin Powell, among others. They all have asked what they can do to help.

"Solidarity" is Paya's simple answer.