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A Flash of Freedom in Cuba

January 02, 2003

It's been almost a month since the European Union awarded Cuban Oswaldo Paya its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and still no ticker-tape parades through Havana. This should surprise no one.

Indeed, the communist nation's dictator and apparatchiks have done nothing but badmouth Paya's courageous, nonviolent struggle to win for Cubans liberties that Americans take for granted.

In 1987, Paya helped found the Christian Liberation Movement, an opposition organization demanding freedom of expression, the right to own a private business, electoral reform and amnesty for political prisoners.

More recently and famously, Paya spearheaded the so-called Varela project, a petition signed by more than 11,000 Cubans demanding a referendum on free elections.

Cuba's deputy foreign minister isn't impressed. Paya, he said in October, "represents nobody." He labeled as "fantasy" the notion, prevalent in Europe, that the petition was a significant sign of popular discontent with President Fidel Castro's regime.

Although the number of signatures keeps growing, the Cuban government has refused to permit the referendum sought by the petition. Instead, after former President Jimmy Carter mentioned the project on national television during his visit to Cuba, Castro and his cronies organized their own referendum to declare the socialist system "untouchable."

As usually happens under a dictatorship, the Cuban people voiced almost universal approval of the status quo. Which raises a question: Why, if the regime can mobilize 8.2 million people to vote in its favor, is it so unwilling to give the modest Varela referendum its day on the ballot? If Paya's project is so insignificant, why does Castro's regime threaten and harass those who dare sign it?

The National Democratic Institute in Washington, D.C., also recently honored Paya for his work on human rights. The Cuban government refused to give him a passport to travel to the United States to collect the prize.

Now, Czech President Vaclav Havel has proposed Paya for the Nobel Peace Prize. Prizes aside, Paya has given a boost to the cause of freedom in Cuba, and for that he deserves the world's recognition.

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