By Anita Snow
The Associated Press
HAVANA (AP) - 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
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
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
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
``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 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.''