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12/28/02 - CUBAN DISSIDENT HONORED - 2002-12-30

Communist dictator Fidel Castro insists that the people of Cuba are free. But the fact is that Castro does not allow political dissent of any kind -- and the world knows it. That is why the European Union has awarded its top human rights prize, the 2002 Sakharov Award, to a Cuban dissident.

Oswaldo Paya (os-VAHL-doe PYE-ah) has worked tirelessly for political and economic reform in Cuba. He is perhaps best known as the founder of the Varela Project, a grass-roots petition drive to force a national referendum on fundamental political and economic freedoms.

Mr. Paya used a provision in Cuba's constitution permitting any ten-thousand citizens to petition the National Assembly for a referendum on any topic. The proposed referendum centers on protecting fundamental freedoms contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right to associate freely. The referendum would call for changes in Cuban laws to protect basic rights. It would also call for an amnesty for all of the political prisoners in Castro's jails, permitting private enterprise, and holding free elections within a year.

The Varela Project collected over eleven-thousand signatures, and the petition was presented to the National Assembly, Cuba's rubber-stamp parliament. But the Cuban government has refused to respond to the petition. Since the petition was submitted to the National Assembly, tens of thousands of additional Cubans have signed it.

And the harassment of Mr. Paya continues. Since it was announced that he would receive the Sakharov Prize, Mr. Paya has received threats and insults from anonymous telephone callers. The day before he was to leave for France to accept the honor, a government-organized mob attacked his house. As Mr. Paya explained it, "They broke down my door, they threatened me and my family with death. I was afraid. But you don't get paralyzed by fear. You go on."

Despite the attack, Mr. Paya continues his work. As he said when he accepted the Sakharov honor, "There are thousands of men and women who are fighting in the teeth of persecution for the rights of all Cubans. Hundreds of them have been imprisoned solely for having proclaimed and stood up for those rights."

The United States supports the Varela project and other peaceful efforts by the Cuban people to bring freedom to their nation. As President George W. Bush said, "Through all their pains and deprivations, the Cuban people's aspirations for freedom are undiminished. . . . If that referendum can be allowed, it. . .can be a prelude, a beginning for real change in Cuba."