Unique Dissidence: A Conversation with Castro's Most Prominent Challenger

Paya’s abiding commitment to human rights, freedom of expression and non-violent change—on the one hand—and the apparent imminence of unprecedented circumstances in Cuba, could make this dissident historically consequential.

As Fidel Castro comes into closer proximity to the hereafter, Cubans are left to contemplate the aftermath.

In this context of fluid, perhaps torrential, conditions in Cuba, a dissident's rare combination of traits could help propel transformative change. Oswaldo Paya insists this change must be incremental, peaceful and come through consensus. The fateful nexus of Paya's abiding commitment to human-rights, freedom of expression and non-violent change-on the one hand-and the apparent imminence of unprecedented circumstances in Cuba, could make this dissident historically consequential.

Nelson Mandela comes to mind, but that comparison is too easy. Conditions in Cuba, it must be acknowledged, are not as miserable as they were in apartheid South Africa. Castro has no qualms with ruining those with the flight of spirit to dissent, but he has taken some care to ensure that his other Cuban "prisoners" are looked after with some level of adequacy, in terms of health care and education. What's more, South Africa truly had few champions during its apartheid era-while Castro has always maintained legitimacy in some quarters of the left. Cuba's defenders of freedom have faced a leader that has never quite been a global pariah. So while Paya does look towards South African reconciliation as a model, change in Cuba will probably not be aided by the same type of international opprobrium. And Cuba is an island.

Paya said he is sustained by faith in the movement, in thinking about political prisoners-who remain "on their knees in jails"-and by not becoming hateful. "There are fears for our family, there are fears for the large family that is Cuba. I believe that above the fear, there is hope, faith and love for Cuba."

For some reason, Castro has spared Paya. While many of those that have participated in the Varela Project that Paya led in 2002 are in prison, he himself lives in his home, closely monitored, and has been allowed to keep his job. In carrying out the Varela Project-which seeks freedoms of speech, elections and enterprise and amnesty for political prisoners-Paya sought to work within the framework of Cuba's 1976 constitution, which stipulates that the support of 10,000 citizens for an initiative could trigger a national referendum. Castro sentenced to brutally long sentences the participants of Varela. His lack of respect for his own constitution and for those who worked so openly, and legally, to institute basic rights stunned Europe's liberal establishment, which in response froze what had been its growing engagement of Castro. Needless to say, whatever momentum the long-shot efforts in America had gained to open up towards Cuba was abruptly cut short.

Although Paya has been accused of being a traitor-which, he said, is intended to bring suffering upon his family-the Varela Project that he is famous for is named after a nineteenth-century priest and champion of Cuba's independence from Spain. Paya and others involved in the referendum drive have been able to collect about 40,000 signatures, verified with the individual's identification numbers-a remarkable feat given Cuba's largely subterranean political opinion.

Paya's international prominence may be protecting him. He won the 2003 European Union Andrew Sakharov Prize for human rights. Perhaps Castro is held back by the fact that Paya himself shares some of the same goals, and with greater earnestness, that endears Castro to some liberals around the world, such as social justice. Or perhaps Castro believes Paya's freedom from prison undercuts his "street cred." Given Paya's steady temperament, the regime may even see in Paya a potential interlocutor between government and the dissident community-should it come to need one in a moment of violent upheaval.

Paya believes such a moment will not come. He rejects the predictions that a post-Castro Cuba could be riven, and perhaps violently, by incoming former exiles-who may favor swift reform and the recouping of confiscated assets-and those Cubans wanting to preserve certain elements of communism's social welfare. He said he does not see irreconcilable differences between the exile community and those "identified" with the government. "What remains constant is a desire for reconciliation, for peace, for rights, and that Cubans be allowed to maintain their businesses without falling into an extreme where the market determines everything . . . What is missing now is the space for the people to be able to express themselves in a peaceful way, to reclaim the ability for every Cuban to have their voice."

And how does Paya know this? Paya has launched another ambitious initiative, known as National Dialogue, which has compiled the written surveys of 14,000 Cubans, chronicling their desires for the island's future. And despite his opposition to the U.S. embargo, Paya has maintained ties to the Miami exile community, which still appreciates his unrelenting promotion of civil liberties. Paya, therefore, has the unique ability to allay tensions between cross-sections of Cuban society.

Paya said that the most important issue is not succession, because "in practice that has been completed-in the form of Raul Castro." But questions remain. In reference to the environment in Cuba and discussion of its post-Castro future, "there has been an enormous silence regarding the issue from independent journalists, among the citizens, as a result of fear but also uncertainty," said Paya. "The Cubans desire maintaining order and social peace, but not the ‘official story' whereby the most basic rights are missing. The Cuban family, the Cuban people, desire a new project for life."