MIAMI -- Lionized by some Cuban exiles and viewed with suspicion by others, Oswaldo Paya -- the communist island's leading dissident -- came to Little Havana on Monday to ask for tolerance and mutual respect in the common quest for a more democratic Cuba.
"The [Cuban] reality is very complex, and solutions to it are as well," Paya said after meeting with several hundred prominent members of the Cuban American community. "It's important that we respect each other in diversity."
Paya, 50, is the driving force behind the Varela Project, a grass-roots referendum campaign seeking a peaceful transition to democracy within Cuba's existing political framework. In recent weeks, the human-rights activist and devout Catholic has traveled to France to accept an award from the European Union's parliament, been received by Pope John Paul II and met in Washington with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
But he could have no tougher audience than in the South Florida city that is home to the largest concentration of Cubans and people of Cuban extraction outside the island, and headquarters for numerous movements that oppose the one-party rule of Fidel Castro.
When Paya was meeting with community figures at La Ermita de la Caridad, a religious shrine venerated by Cuban exiles, dozens of police were on hand to ensure there were no gate-crashers or violent protests.
"What's hard for exile Cubans is that this [the Varela Project] is sort of a practical solution to the dictatorship," Dario Moreno, professor of political science at Florida International University, said when asked to explain the controversy over Paya's program. "In a sense, it legitimizes Fidel's role in Cuban history, and is no longer a struggle between right and wrong."
"If you're into a black-and-white struggle and want all vestiges of the last 43 years wiped out, then this is not the way to go," said Moreno, a Cuban American.
For die-hard foes of the Castro regime, the reforms championed by Paya aren't nearly sweeping enough.
"The Varela Project seeks change within the system," said Ninoska Perez-Castellon, a spokeswoman for the Cuban Liberty Council. "I read all the time that they are calling for general elections. That's not what they are calling for. They call for elections to the National Assembly. It meets twice a year for two days, and can only ratify what Castro says."
Over the weekend, 10 exile organizations issued a joint statement expressing skepticism about the Varela Project, named after a 19th century Roman Catholic priest who was an early advocate of Cuban liberty and independence.
In contrast, Paya is a genuine "freedom fighter," said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, which is seen as the most influential of the exile organizations. Some Cuban Americans may dispute some of Paya's views, as Garcia does the dissident's call for an end to the long-standing U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. But there can be no doubt he is a "real hero," Garcia said.
"Here is the living embodiment of Cuba's struggle for liberty from inside," the foundation official said. "He is a guy in the midst of the battle, in the field."
Paya has been firm that the debate should center not on whether the 40-year U.S. ban on trade should remain or be revoked, but on what internal political reforms Cubans themselves want and deserve. At a news conference after Monday's meeting, he said people inside and outside the island should also not be obsessed about who might succeed Castro, now 76.
"The Varela Project is hoping the 'successor' will be the Cuban people exercising its sovereign rights, but this is something one has to win," Paya said. "It cannot be achieved sitting around waiting for somebody to die. That idea is paralyzing."
For Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, Paya is a deep and courageous thinker on a par with the late Soviet dissident Andrei D. Sakharov, and merits serious attention. Other Cuban Americans wondered if the fact that Paya was allowed to travel meant he was in accord with Castro, or being used to give a more human face to the only communist-ruled country in the Western Hemisphere.
On some of the Spanish-language radio stations in Miami, Paya was described, unfavorably, as "Fidel's ambassador."
Paya arrived during the weekend from Washington, bearing a box of Cuban soil to present to the shrine in Coconut Grove. At the end of evening Mass, he was invited to speak, and called on exiles and their offspring to join in his efforts to promote peaceful change.
"This is where the other half of the heart of the Cuban people is, and when a heart is divided, both parts suffer," Paya told the Miami worshipers. "Help me. This is a task for all of us."