By VANESSA ARRINGTON
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
HAVANA—Cuba’s “culture of fear” is the biggest hurdle people living under the communist government must overcome to prompt peaceful political change and a free market on the island, Cuba’s best-known dissident told The Associated Press in an interview.
Oswaldo Paya said he hopes to push Cubans into action with the National Dialogue, his latest effort to bring democracy to Cuba.
“It’s like therapy, so people will understand the origin of their fear, the origin of their status,” Paya said of the project. “It’s therapy where Cubans discover their dignity ... and discover that life can be different.”
Unlike other regimes that have used force to control citizens, Cuba relies on people’s fear of punishment - ranging from ostracism to imprisonment - to maintain order, Paya said.
“This regime dominates through people’s fear,” he told the AP late Monday, sitting in his living room filled with photographs of Cuban political prisoners and portraits of Jesus Christ. “It’s a culture of fear. It’s like a system of anticipated paralysis, in which people are not capable of expressing themselves or having conflicting attitudes.”
Those who dare to speak out against the government can lose their jobs, be given the cold shoulder in their neighborhoods, or wind up in prison, Paya said. Their children can face exclusion and discrimination at school or at work, he added.
Many adult volunteers who participated in Paya’s Varela Project - a democracy drive that brought international acclaim to the activist - are now behind bars.
Paya says about 50 of the 75 dissidents arrested and sentenced to long prison terms in a spring 2003 government crackdown were Varela Project leaders. Fourteen of the 75 have been released for health reasons, but just two of those were Varela participants, he said.
Under the Varela Project, volunteers submitted 25,000 signatures to Cuba’s parliament seeking a referendum asking voters if they favor civil liberties such as freedom of speech and the right to business ownership. Authorities long ago shelved the project, ruling it unconstitutional.
The Cuban government considers Paya and other opponents to be “counterrevolutionaries,” and says there is room within the system for dissenting voices, as long as they don’t directly attack the island’s socialist revolution or its leaders.
Paya said his latest pursuit, the National Dialogue, is even more threatening to the Cuban government. It goes to the heart of the regime, he said, by prompting people to voice their concerns and complaints and actively create a blueprint for change in Cuba’s centralized political and economic systems.
“When Cubans are capable of saying that, beyond our fear, we want change, that hits the nucleus of power,” he said. “If the people don’t have fear, the regime no longer exists.”
Under the project, thousands of Cubans on the island and abroad have formed small groups to discuss reform. The project includes outspoken opponents of President Fidel Castro as well as supporters of the current system who favor some changes.
A committee of 110 people was formed to organize participants, and a document is expected midyear.
The Cuban government has not publicly commented on the National Dialogue, which was launched last summer. However, Paya said state security agents have threatened some of those hosting group sessions.
Paya said he is accustomed to death threats and surveillance on his house. And he says some parents have told their children to keep away from his children.
He said he wakes up every day facing the possibility he could be imprisoned. But because the nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and winner of the European Union’s top human rights award is internationally known, many observers doubt that would happen.
Paya and members of his Christian Liberation Movement also have adversaries among some activists on the island and exile groups in the United States. He says he will not attend an opposition congress in May being organized by dissidents.
“We don’t trust them, given a long history of sabotaging our projects and defaming our colleagues,” he said.
Many dissidents, including those imprisoned in 2003, have been accused of working with U.S. diplomats to undermine the socialist system - charges Washington and the activists denied. Paya also insists his group is not being influenced by anyone.
“No one can pressure us, no one pays us,” Paya said. “We only respond to the interests of Cubans.”