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1/8/03 - CUBAN DISSIDENT VISITS U.S. - 2003-01-10

The people of Cuba deserve to be free. They deserve to live normal lives without fear of repression. They deserve to reap the rewards of their own labor. But for over forty years, the dictatorship of Fidel Castro has maintained a system that has deprived the Cuban people of their freedoms, their rights, and their livelihoods.

Despite constant fear and oppression, the struggle for freedom in Cuba is being waged by courageous, committed Cubans. One such man is longtime advocate for Cuban human rights, Oswaldo Paya.

Mr. Paya visited the United States a few days ago to call attention to the plight of those who struggle to bring peaceful democratic change to Cuba. He is perhaps best known as the founder of the Varela Project, a grass-roots movement to force a national referendum on democracy, human rights, and economic freedom in Cuba.

Last year, Varela project organizers tried to invoke a provision in Cuba's 1976 constitution that permits a referendum if ten-thousand signatures are collected on a petition. The project collected over eleven-thousand signatures and last summer presented them to the National Assembly, Cuba's rubber-stamp parliament. But the Cuban government refused to respond.

Mr. Paya is not discouraged by the failure of the assembly to do its constitutional duty. "The Varela Project will continue as a civic movement until we achieve our rights and a democracy," he said. "There are two things that are inseparable: our determination to achieve these changes, and our determination to achieve them peacefully."

But the harassment of Mr. Paya continues. Since it was announced that he would receive the European Union's 2002 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, Mr. Paya has received threats and insults from anonymous telephone callers. The day before he was to leave Cuba to accept the honor, a government-organized mob attacked his house. But Mr. Paya is still optimistic and, in fact, sees a bright future for his country. As he told U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, "The changes have begun, not in the structures of government but in the hearts of the Cuban people,"

The U.S. is determined to provide the people of Cuba hope in their struggle against Castro's totalitarian system. That is why the U.S. and other democratic nations are pressing for democratic change and respect for human rights in Cuba. The people of Cuba deserve no less.