Internal debate threatens Cuba's fledgling opposition

Hardliners want to provoke Castro, but moderate dissenters prefer legal recourse.

For years, dissidents of Fidel Castro's communist regime were silent. Now, their competing voices threaten to drown each other out.

As Mr. Castro has grown tolerant of internal dissent, tensions between the opposition movement's moderate and extremist wings have grown bitter over a fundamental question: Can Castro's dictatorship be challenged through legal means or should it be condemned completely?

On one side is Oswaldo Paya, who represents the moderate wing. Mr. Paya is the author of the Varela Project, a constitutionally permitted petition demanding greater human rights, amnesty for nonviolent political prisoners, free enterprise, and electoral reforms. Last May, Paya presented more than 11,000 signatures to Cuba's National Assembly, demanding a public referendum on its principles. The project, named after a 19th-century priest and Cuban independence advocate, has garnered much international support.

"This is the beginning of a national transition," says Paya, who in 1987 founded Cuba's Christian Liberation Movement, the group behind the Varela Project. "Transition begins when people give up their fear. As they do, the government becomes more fearful."

Under the Cuban Constitution, a petition such as the Varela Project should be answered "within a reasonable length of time."

While no reply has been forthcoming, many observers say the government unofficially addressed the issue with a constitutional amendment last summer declaring Cuba's socialist system "irrevocable."

Marta Beatriz Roque and other hardliners point to this amendment as an example of why it is impossible to work within Cuba's system. Ms. Roque, a leading independent economist, says the pliability of Cuba's Constitution means efforts like the Varela Project are bound to be ineffective.

"I have always insisted that the Varela Project is inviable and does not represent Cuba's opposition," says Roque, who served a three-year prison sentence from 1997 to 2000 for attacking Cuba's one-party political system. "Human rights are not something that you ask for; you must demand them."

Roque and other hardliners prefer measures, such as marches, that visibly challenge and provoke the government.

For example, Roque recently founded the Assembly to Promote Civil Society, an association of more than 300 dissident groups that she says will highlight the abuses of Castro's communist state. The association writes papers and briefs journalists on rights issues. Some of her colleagues have been jailed for making public protests, including Oscar Biscet, a doctor, who was released in October after spending three years in jail for hanging a flag upside down at a press conference.

But Paya blames the hardliners for creating dissension among the dissenters. "These opposition figures have done the government's work - provoke, defame, and divide the opposition while achieving nothing," he says.

By all accounts, this has been a banner year for Cuban dissidents, due chiefly to global interest in the Varela Project. In May, former President Jimmy Carter visited Cuba. In an address broadcast across Cuban media, he challenged Castro to publicize the petition.

Last month, Paya won the European Parliament's top human-rights prize - the Sakharov Award for Human Rights and Freedom of Thought. Vaclev Haval, president of the Czech Republic and a Nobel laureate, has become one of the project's most distinguished champions. While gaining attention overseas, the dissidents have yet to mobilize a significant fraction of the 11 million Cubans. Most remain ignorant of the opposition movement and its goals, a fact that may explain the regime's tolerance of their activity.

"I have not heard of any dissidents or their projects," says Pedro Alzugaray, a Havana welder, speaking at a construction site to restore the city's primary school.

Still, William Leogrande, a professor of politics at American University in Washington and an expert on Cuban affairs, says that dissident movements in Cuba, while small, can be effective.

"This kind of organizing is not going to bring down the regime," he says. "But dissident projects can mobilize public opinion. When the regime faces a crisis, the same dissidents become agents for change."

Nevertheless, debate among dissidents can debilitate their cause, Leogrande says. "So few people are willing to organize against the Castro regime that splits like this become very damaging.

"Ideally, the dissidents will find a common strategy and work together. In that respect, the Varela Project has energized people's imagination like nothing before."

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