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Paya, a devout Roman Catholic whose model for action is the work of civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr., is in it for the long term. "Paya is unique," says Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch in Washington. "He is openly challenging Castro's system by using the system itself." Paya, for example, has at various times in the past publicly announced his intention to run as an opposition candidate in Castro's one-party elections, a transgression for which he was once arrested. But Paya's most effective tool has been his petition drive, the Varela Project. Under Castro's 1976 constitution, a national referendum requires just 10,000 signatures. Paya's movement has so far gathered some 40,000, calling for a plebiscite on free speech, multiparty elections and increased private enterprise.
Castro peremptorily refuses to recognize the petitions. But they have spawned a grass-roots dissident network that finally spooked him into action. In March, with the aid of agents who had infiltrated the island's opposition cells, Castro rounded up more than 75 dissidents and journalists, most of them Paya lieutenants. In a speech on May 1, Castro branded them "mercenaries on the payroll of Bush's Hitler-like government," which he claimed is poised to invade Cuba.
Paya says that when he goes out, he is shadowed by government agents, who sometimes follow just a few feet away. Despite the harassment, he says the arrests and repression are only broadening his base. Vivanco, however, fears that Castro is succeeding in weakening the movement by decapitating its upper management--and thinks the U.S.'s handling of the issue could determine the movement's fate.
For Bush, that means walking a fine line between backing Paya and keeping U.S. support below Castro's radar. To demonstrate that he's not a U.S. pawn, Paya has made it a point to keep his movement at arm's length from diplomats like James Cason, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Cason infuriated Castro this year with a stepped-up campaign of visits with, and economic aid to, certain Cuban dissidents--who Paya claims did not include the M.C.L. or Varela members. Castro seized on the actions, claiming that all dissidents were being paid to help the U.S. destabilize Cuba.
Paya says he would discourage Bush from overtly announcing a big increase in economic aid to Cuban dissidents, which amounts to less than $10 million a year. But that leaves few other options for the White House. To further squeeze Castro economically, Bush could restrict the remittances Cuban Americans send to relatives on the island--which total almost $1 billion a year--but that would alienate a key Florida voting bloc. The Administration has already barred U.S. citizens from nonacademic, "people-to-people" visits to Cuba. It could heighten its crackdown on Americans who flout the ban on tourist travel to Cuba, but that would rekindle an already heated congressional debate on the failed 41-year-old embargo. Like many other Cuban dissidents, Paya opposes the embargo because it gives Castro a convenient excuse for Cuba's faltering economy.