Internationally renowned dissident Oswaldo Paya on Thursday announced a new group with more than 300 members to promote reconciliation and push for laws that allow Cubans more individual liberties.
Paya said the Citizen Committee for Reconciliation and Dialogue seeks to get average Cubans involved in efforts to change laws to “guarantee the exercise of fundamental rights of all Cubans, whether they live inside or outside” the communist-run island.
It builds on Paya’s Varela Project, which amassed more than 25,000 signatures asking for a referendum to change Cuba’s electoral law and to guarantee freedoms of speech, assembly and private business ownership.
The European Union honored that project in 2002 by awarding Paya its top human rights prize.
While some members of the new committee are established dissidents, most are ordinary citizens, Paya told a small group of reporters.
“The majority of Cubans want change,” said Paya, 55, a devout Roman Catholic who founded the opposition Christian Liberation Movement a decade ago to emphasize peaceful change. “Never before have the Cuban people been so conscious that change is near and that Cuba has to change.”
The island’s 81-year-old leader, Fidel Castro, underwent emergency intestinal surgery last year and stepped aside provisionally for his brother Raul, the 76-year-old defense minister and his constitutionally appointed successor.
Communist leaders insist that no major changes will occur after Fidel Castro is gone and dismiss opposition leaders such as Paya as “counterrevolutionaries” and “mercenaries.”
Paya’s projects are less militant and more inclusive than most opposition projects in Cuba, bringing him criticism from some people in the exile community.
He insists that change on the island must be homegrown and rejects proposals for change made by governments and groups outside the island, such as the recent White House project to promote a “democratic transition” in Cuba.
In a “Declaration of Liberty for Cubans” accompanying Thursday’s announcement, Paya said, “The Cuban people, and especially the new generations, want to live in peace, in an environment free of fakery, fear, hate, rancor, without revenge or vengeance.”
Paya’s experience with the Varela Project and other groups gives him a greater organizational capacity and following than most opposition groups.
When Paya delivered thousands of signatures to parliament in May 2002, it was seen as the most extensive homegrown, nonviolent effort to push for reforms in Cuba’s one-party system since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
Cuban lawmakers ruled the initiative was unconstitutional, and the government responded with its own petition drive to declare socialism an “irrevocable” part of the constitution.