By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
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Payá's Varela Project calls on the Castro government to allow a national referendum aimed at ending Cuba's one-party system. The referendum language would include guarantees of freedom of the press, freedom to organize new political parties, and freedom for candidates from any party to get on the ballot in local, regional, and national elections. The project relies on a section of Cuba's 1976 socialist constitution, which allows for citizen initiatives if their organizers collect 11,000 signatures, which Payá and others have done. Former Czech president Vaclav Havel has nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. A recent Bendixen & Associates poll found that 72 percent of Cubans in Broward and Miami-Dade think the project is a "good idea" while 9 percent consider it a "bad idea." Also, 78 percent supported Payá's push for a peaceful transition, while 16 percent favored an "abrupt and violent" one.
Payá actually met with Jorge Mas Canosa and three other foundation directors in 1997, several months before Mas Canosa's death. The encounter revealed fissures already existed in the foundation over whether to support dissidents working for reform, rather than relying on the embargo or hoping for a violent uprising. The unpublicized meeting took place at Mas Canosa's house on Old Cutler Road, and included Domingo Moreira, Pepe Hernandez, and Juan Suarez Rivas, a friend of Payá's.
According to Hernandez, Roberto Martin Perez (the husband of Ninoska Perez) had come but left in anger. "I don't think he was in agreement then with conversing with Payá. It was a little tense," Hernandez recounted. "Payá wanted to talk to Jorge at that time. It wasn't really to ask for help," the foundation president recalled. "It was to ask Mas Canosa not to oppose him." Payá received the response he had sought. "Jorge said that even though we had reservations about any project that tried to work inside the system, we weren't going to attack it and that he could be sure to count on our support any time he needed it," Hernandez remembered. Hernandez left the meeting opposed to the Varela Project, suspecting it could be a maneuver by Castro.
In mid-2001 Payá sent his Puerto Rico representative Frank de Armas to Miami to ask for the foundation's support. This time he received it. Shortly afterward, Moreira issued a press release in support of the project. "It said we support the Varela Project like we support all initiatives that emanate from Cuba and that try to bring a peaceful transition to democracy," Garcia recounted. That same day Ninoska Perez spent two hours slamming the Varela Project on the foundation's radio show. "And the next day," Garcia continued, "with all the calm in the world Domingo said, 'Reissue the press release, put it up on our Website, ignore what she's doing.'" Perez quit soon thereafter.
The foundation leadership stayed away from Payá's "convocation" with about 100 exiles during his brief visit to Miami, apparently for tactical reasons. But just before his departure for Mexico a group of foundation directors met with him privately at the Miami Lakes home of one of Payá's relatives. In addition to Mas, Garcia, Hernandez, and Moreira, the group included Carlos de Cespedes and Remberto Perez.
The foundation sent Payá off with a full-page ad in El Nuevo Heraldthat praised Payá and declared victory in the "Battle of Washington," Mas Canosa's term for the lobbying effort the foundation began in 1981. As evidence of President Bush's commitment toward keeping the embargo, it listed five Cuban Americans who now hold important positions in the administration, including HUD Secretary Mel Martinez and White House advisors Emilio Gonzalez and Otto Reich. It then proclaimed that the only people who could really bring democracy to Cuba were on the island. Therefore the foundation's -- and el exilio's -- new mission was to support them, however hapless they might be.
"The Cuban opposition, repressed, asphyxiated by a regime of shame, has not only the right but the necessity to use any route, any opening, any contradiction that permits it to confront the regime with its own lies," the ad proclaimed. "In our opinion, this is what the Varela Project attempts and why it has our sympathy."
For his part, Hernandez says that through Payá he realized that he was ignorant of the reality of Cubans on the island. "I think that this trip gave us the opportunity to see that reality more closely, because unfortunately many of us have spent so much time outside of Cuba," he lamented.
A month later the foundation appears to be winning the battle for Miami, with the Schroth poll showing the foundation's approval rating at 54 percent compared with 38 percent for the CLC. But the battle for Cuba is another story. The Cuban government has officially "archived" the Varela Project. Moreover, in April members of the Castro regime are scheduled to meet with about 400 exiles in Havana to discuss their concerns. The foundation was not invited.
El exilio's liaison for the talks is Max Lesnik, who is skeptical that Mas and Garcia will ever play a significant role in Cuba. The new foundation has more to do with the Mas in MasTec, he assured. "You can't be chairman of the board of a company that is on the stock market and have relations with terrorism," Lesnik observed, then offered a summary of the situation. "He begins to adopt a position to take care of his economic interests, to manage the Cuban situation more cautiously, and to separate himself from those who along with his father practiced the politics of terrorism. And to be able to do that he needs to find a point of reference. And what does he find? That there's an internal dissident movement presided over by someone named Payá. And then he says, caramba, if we support Payá I'm showing first that I don't have presidential ambitions in Cuba, second that my position is more acceptable in the international world as a moderate person, and I avoid the responsibility of directing a process in which I'm not going to have the unanimous control over the right-wing exile that Jorge Mas Canosa had."