ANITA SNOW | Associated Press
HAVANA - Democracy activist Oswaldo Paya said he traveled the length of Cuba twice this spring and found the dissident movement bruised but alive despite a government crackdown that put 75 vocal critics behind bars.
Paya, the organizer of the Varela Project signature-gathering drive seeking guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and business ownership, was spared in the harshest crackdown in decades.
In one-day trials in April, 75 dissidents were given prison sentences of up to 28 years.
“The campaign, our committees, could not be destroyed by this blow,” said Paya in his home one sweltering June evening.
But he conceded that many who helped him collect signatures will probably remain locked up during the rest of 76-year-old Fidel Castro’s lifetime.
Three months after the crackdown, Paya and veteran human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez sat down separately with The Associated Press to reflect on the future of Cuba’s opposition, society and political system.
In the trials, government agents who infiltrated the opposition accused the defendants of being mercenaries for American officials to harm the socialist system - charges the dissidents and the U.S. government deny.
Despite the setback, Paya said there still are people across Cuba still willing to collect signatures.
He said it doesn’t matter that Cuba’s parliament rejected as unconstitutional the 11,000 signatures his volunteers delivered a year ago shortly before former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s visit here.
“The hope is not that the government responds positively,” said Paya, 51. “It’s the mobilization for change. We are demanding our rights.”
A decade ago Paya, an observant Roman Catholic, helped found Cuba’s Christian Liberation Movement, a faith-based activist group unrecognized by Castro’s government.
Paya stopped the interview several times to talk with two Catholic nuns who stopped by to consult on helping relatives of political prisoners find families to stay with when visiting penitentiaries in Cuba’s interior.
A few evenings earlier, Sanchez excused himself several times to take calls from dissidents imprisoned in the crackdown.
“The most important thing is to read a lot, eat well, take care of your health,” Sanchez, who spent four years in prison, advised the inmate. “Don’t despair.”
Sanchez, who runs the non-governmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, puffed on a cigar in the patio outside his front door as he talked about the crackdown’s long-term effects on the opposition.
“In the 35 years I have been in the resistance here, I have never seen so much solidarity for us among the simple people,” Sanchez said. “They have just cut down some grass that is only going to grow back.”
While dissidents remain in the minority, “they express what the majority feels,” said Sanchez, a 59-year old former professor of Marxism.
“The Cuban people want greater spaces and well-being, civil liberties.”
“But people are overwhelmed by daily life, getting food or medicine, transportation from one neighborhood to another,” he said. “They don’t have time to worry about politics.”
Sanchez said he would support a democratic transition led by Castro. “With his enormous authority, Fidel could be a great facilitator of change,” he said. “But he doesn’t want to.”
Thus “the only resolution will be the end of the regime,” said Sanchez.
Sanchez said continued U.S. aggression just gives Cuba a pretext to accuse the internal opposition of siding with Washington.
The United States has maintained an economic embargo against the island more than four decades and the administration of President Bush has increasingly toughened policies toward Cuba.
“The best thing Washington could do is to put Cuba aside and let the situation develop naturally, let the contradictions continue to cook in their own sauces,” Sanchez said.
Paya said change in Cuba must occur from inside. But he rejected the idea of a Castro-led transition and disagreed with the conventional wisdom that changes must wait until after Castro dies.
“We are not waiting,” said Paya. “Change in Cuba will come by a great civic mobilization.”
“I’m not married to the idea of capitalism, or of socialism,” Paya said. “I believe in the worth of the individual, in the liberation of the person from within.”