Voices for Change in Cuba Find Achieving Harmony Difficult

Times Staff Writer

With the economy on its knees, the leading dissident being feted across Europe and Cubans defecting or fleeing in every direction, the time would seem ripe for counterrevolution.

But Cuba's opposition is enfeebled by divisions. With more than 300 disparate parties and movements squabbling about the best way to effect change, the small choruses urging reform are easily drowned out by the roar of rallies staged by the communist regime of President Fidel Castro.

Take the Varela Project, mounted by Oswaldo Paya and his Christian Liberation Movement. A petition drive waged across this island nation at the cost of many proponents' jobs and personal security, the campaign for multiparty elections and the right to start modest private businesses has faded from the limelight, usurped by competing movements for liberalization.

Even Paya's acceptance in mid-December of the prestigious Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought -- the European Parliament's annual recognition of an individual contribution to the state of human rights -- has failed to bring much pressure on Castro to release more than 200 prisoners of conscience.

Paya says fellow Cubans are too fearful of an armed and violent regime to demand even the internationally recognized right of peaceful assembly. Other leaders of the fractured forum pressing for democracy and a free market concur that they have themselves to blame for their failure to achieve greater civil liberties.

"The regime doesn't need police outside every home, because we have these police inside ourselves. Our fear stops us from stepping out of line," says Marta Beatriz Roque, head of the Cuban Institute of Independent Economists and a leading opposition figure.

Having been imprisoned for three years for challenging the Castro regime in 1997, Roque says Cubans have legitimate grounds for fearing that dissent will only exacerbate repression. More than 200 people have been fired from their jobs or expelled from universities recently for signing pro-democracy petitions or taking part in gatherings of a fledgling "alternative parliament."

The prospects for change seemed to gain momentum last spring, when Paya's petition, with more than 11,000 signatures, was lauded by visiting former President Carter in a nationally televised address before Cuba's one-party parliament.

But in a country where the media are state mouthpieces and where unsanctioned meetings with foreigners often result in fines or arrests, the drive for democracy has repeatedly failed to elicit more than quixotic gestures among the few willing to shake off the paralysis of resignation.

Paya's valiant words to the European Parliament on Dec. 17 moved fellow champions of human rights around the world.

"We cannot and will not live without freedom," the 50-year-old engineer vowed to the assembly. "There are thousands of men and women who are fighting in the teeth of persecution for the rights of all Cubans."

But not a word of his remarks crept into the state-run press back home. Nor do many Cubans have access to the Internet and unvarnished accounts of what has transpired in this country. Though thousands may be lending their signatures and voices to calls for freedom, Castro's Communist Party is still able to mobilize exponentially larger pro-regime efforts, such as the million-plus signatures collected from the party faithful to defeat the Varela initiative by declaring communism "untouchable."

Having failed to make a dent in the dictatorial status quo, opposition figures are ever more fractured over how far they should go in challenging a system that Castro has declared will change only over his dead body.

"That Castro will die one day is a fact. But we don't want to wait for this. We want to build a democracy right now. But we must do this only by peaceful means," Paya said from the spartan living room of his home in Havana's crumbling Cerro district on the eve of his European departure.

Paya arrived in Washington on Friday and is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Monday.

Paya accuses the Castro regime of parceling out the few business opportunities that exist here to loyal comrades in the top party echelons, creating an oligarchy that siphons off the proceeds of budding joint ventures with foreign partners.

"It's ironic, but the very people who claim to uphold socialism are the ones getting rich and building lavish new houses," Paya says, asserting that the corruption of the upper ranks shows that Castro's ideology has died.

That is no cause for jubilation within the opposition, though. Paya says that the wealthy few now have a vested interest in maintaining their stranglehold on the emerging free market and on the armed forces and security troops who ensure they retain power.

Although Paya was allowed to travel to France to accept the European Parliament award at a high-profile gathering in Strasbourg, that permission came only after pressure on Castro from Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Virtually no one in the opposition camp saw the decision as any sign of relaxation. Instead, it was seen as a strategic move by Castro to avoid being spotlighted as an oppressor while Carter was once again on the international stage to collect his 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.

Where the troubled drive for reform will go from here is uncertain. Roque and the Assembly to Promote Civil Society, which she heads, urge civil disobedience to undermine the system, arguing that nothing will change without risk-taking.

The last timid effort in that direction -- a meeting of about a dozen dissidents in early December to discuss strategy -- resulted in the arrests of all the participants, the most prominent of whom is still in a maximum-security prison. Oscar Elias Biscet had been released only a month earlier after spending three years in prison for hanging the Cuban flag upside down in a sign of protest.

Paya, who has spent time in prison for defending citizens' right to religious freedom, recounts decades of state-orchestrated threats and vandalism aimed at breaking his will and scaring away potential allies.

"Do I have fear? Of course I do, especially for my family," says Paya, who has a wife and three school-age children. "But there is no victory if fear triumphs. I cannot let my fear be used as an instrument to dominate me. What is important is to continue the struggle."

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