Cuban dissident is set to visit Miami


Published: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 11:02 p.m.

MIAMI - Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, who led a petition drive last year pushing for democratic reforms on the communist island, is scheduled to visit this Cuban-American stronghold on Monday, an exile group said.

Paya, who spoke at Georgetown University in Washington on Friday and met with Secretary of State Colin Powell this past week, is to attend a Monday news conference at a Miami church, said Yaniset Rivero, spokeswoman for the Cuban Democratic Directorate.

Paya's Varela Project in May turned in stacks of petitions that backers said were signed by 11,020 people asking Cuba's parliament for a referendum. He has said an additional 10,000 signatures have since been obtained.

Cuban authorities countered Paya and his supporters with a petition drive of their own that they said yielded 7 million signatures and decreed that Cuba's socialist system will remain untouchable.

Polls show Paya enjoys support from a large part of the Cuban-American community in Miami-Dade County, where more than 650,000 of its 2.2 million residents identified themselves as Cuban in the 2000 census.

But some hard-line groups have railed against Paya for his criticisms of the 40-year-old trade embargo against Cuba. Critics of Paya say his agenda requires negotiating with Cuban president Fidel Castro, something that hasn't worked in the past.

Ninoska Perez-Castellon, founder of the Cuban Liberty Council exile group, chided the Varela Project's desire to bring change from within the island through the election of opponents to the one-party National Assembly, rather than push for free elections for everyone.

But the focus should be on gains in human rights Paya is trying to bring and not the trade embargo or other side issues, said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation.

"This man has the support of the overwhelming majority of the Cuban community that is free to think," Garcia said. "Those who are arguing are arguing about periods and commas, not about human rights."

The Cuban government surprised Paya, 50, and his allies by allowing him to leave the country in December so that he could travel to France to receive the European Union's top human rights award.

He came to Washington this week to receive a human rights award from the National Democratic Institute, a government-supported pro-democracy grouping.

In a speech this week, Paya said was not asking for any specific help from the United States.

"We did not come here to ask for measures," Paya said. "The truth is we have not come to ask for anything in relation to the United States government. We say this without arrogance, with a lot of respect and a lot of dignity. But we do expect solidarity and moral support for the Cuban people."

"We have nothing against Oswaldo Paya, but this project does not fit the wishes of all Cuban exiles," Perez-Castellon said. "Change within the system is no change at all."

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