Rosa Maria Paya, one of Cuba’s best-known young dissident leaders, has a message for those who stand on both sides of the major question facing the communist island nation: Will normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba hasten real freedom for its people?
“They both want to help the Cuban people,” said Paya, 26, who is visiting Tampa this weekend. “I’m sure they agree what is best for the Cuban people is for them to decide on their own destiny.”
Paya’s organization, Cuba Decides, is urging the international community to pressure the Cuban government for a plebiscite — a direct vote of the populace on matters of national importance.
The question she wants answered: Do you want free multiparty elections covered by news organizations without government interference?
She will present her case at 11 a.m. Saturday at the headquarters of Casa de Cuba, 2506 W. Curtis St. At 12:30 p.m. Sunday, she will attend Casa de Cuba’s 25th anniversary celebration at La Giraldilla Hanley, 8218 Hanley Road.
This will be her first U.S. presentation of the plebiscite campaign, centered at the website www.cubadecide.com.
“Everyone needs to help us exert pressure and spread the word that Cubans have the right to choose their government,” Paya said. “No matter your party or political affiliation, this is about supporting real change in Cuba.”
Those in Tampa who support the move by President Barack Obama to normalize relations with Cuba after five decades of isolation may consider the site of Paya’s local presentation to be enemy territory.
Casa de Cuba advocates for continuation of the Cold War-era embargo, arguing it’s the only way to topple the Castro regime and bring democracy to Cuba. Obama says engagement now will improve the lives of its people.
Paya hopes those on both sides of the debate can put their differences aside Saturday.
Everyone is welcome to her presentation, said Ralph Fernandez, the Tampa lawyer who represents Casa de Cuba.
“Her message has universal acceptance,” Fernandez said. “Casa de Cuba does not want to divide the audience.”
Tampa was chosen for Paya’s first U.S. audience for three reasons.
First, because of its Cuban-American population, the third largest in the U.S.
Second, because it is the U.S. city most associated with José Martí, the Cuban freedom fighter who inspired the island nation’s successful war of independence from Spain in the 1890s.
It was from here that Martí raised money for the war and wrote the order for the battle to begin.
Tampa also has the José Martí Trail — a tour of spots linked to the freedom fighter — and in October will become the first U.S. city with a branch of the José Martí Cultural Society. The society has chapters in more than 90 countries.
“Tampa understands Martí’s dream for Cuba,” Paya said. “So they should understand what we need to do now.”
Finally, Tampa was chosen because it has sounded the call for normalization.
The Tampa City Council passed resolutions seeking to host a Cuban consulate and the signing of any documents restoring relations. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce supports trade with Cuba.
And U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, has led the normalization efforts.
Paya would consider it a victory to win support for a plebiscite from among the people of Tampa.
“Tampa’s city council … should show solidarity with the democratic demands of the Cuban people,” said Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, who challenges the Cuban government in the magazine “Voces,” published in the U.S. and available as an Internet download in Cuba.
Tampa Councilwoman Yvonne Capin, who introduced the Cuba resolutions, was unavailable for comment Wednesday.
Castor said she welcomes Paya to Tampa and encourages her constituents to join Saturday’s discussions.
“America’s new policy of engagement is intended to empower the Cuban people and encourage the Cuban government to go further and faster,” Castor said in an email to the Tribune. “I support Ms. Paya’s right to call for a plebiscite and believe that the Cuban people and indeed all people around the world should have the political freedom to petition their government for change.”
Another supporter of Paya’s measure is Albert Fox, founder of the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, which lobbies for the end of the Cuba embargo.
“My opinion has always been that it is not for me or the U.S. government to tell the Cuban citizens what form of government they should have,” Fox said. “That is for them to decide, and that is important to me.”
Neither Castor nor Fox plans to attend Saturday’s event, citing prior commitments.
Cuba holds elections to decide representatives in municipalities, provinces and its National Assembly.
The president, however, is chosen by the National Assembly. A presidential term is five years, and there is no limit on the number of terms.
The Communist Party is the only party allowed under the constitution, but a candidate can run without an affiliation.
Up to 40 percent of the National Assembly members are people without a party, said Ted Henken, professor of Latin American studies at the City University of New York’s Baruch College.
Still, decisions of all elected officials must be in line with the platform of the Communist Party.
And most decision-making power lies with the president and his Council of State, both appointed by the National Assembly.
“The plebiscite is the first step,” Paya said. “Before we can have freedom of elections, we need to decide if we want to make the necessary changes in the system to move us in the right direction.”
The constitution does not require the government to accept the results of a plebiscite, but Paya said the international community would know the wishes of the Cuban people.
Even if the result favors the status quo, she said, she welcomes the chance for Cubans to make their choice.
“This Cuban government has never been selected by the people,” Paya said.
A poll of 1,200 Cuban citizens conducted by Miami-based Bendixen & Amandi International showed 39 percent are satisfied with the political system, 58 percent rate the Communist Party of Cuba negatively and 48 percent are dissatisfied with Raul Castro’s leadership.
Cuba has about 11 million people.
“Obama has said isolation has not worked and this new policy will empower the Cuban people,” said dissident Cuban writer Pardo Lazo. “But the Cuban people are not participating in these discussions, and they will not be allowed to under the current form of government. Those who really say they support Obama because they care about Cuba will support this plebiscite.”
Paya’s work continues the legacy of her father, the late Oswaldo Paya.
He began speaking in favor of more civil rights in Cuba in the 1980s and acquired international fame in 2002 when he presented Cuba’s legislature 11,020 signatures calling for a referendum on safeguarding freedom of speech and assembly and ending one-party rule.
A year later, he delivered an additional 14,000 signatures.
A clause in the constitution requires a national referendum if 11,000 signatures are gathered.
For his efforts, Paya was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and won the European version.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter traveled to Cuba to endorse his cause.
But no referendum was held on his questions.
Instead, the Cuban government scheduled a referendum declaring the socialist system untouchable. The government said more than 8 million voters supported it. The measure was added to the constitution.
Just as her father did, Paya seeks to bridge the debate with her message.
He opposed Fidel and Raul Castro but also the embargo, saying it gave the brothers cover for their economic failures.
Fox, of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, recalls attending cocktail receptions welcoming Paya’s father to the U.S.
Attorney Fernandez supported his petition for a referendum from Tampa.
These two men, who rarely agree on anything about Cuba politics, share respect for his work.
Paya died in a car crash in 2012.
Cuban law enforcement said the vehicle veered off the road accidentally and hit a tree.
Dissidents say witnesses saw another vehicle push it off the road. They contend state security was behind the death.
“Since then Rosa has become a very important figure in Cuba,” said Henken, of Baruch College. “Her last name means something in Cuba. Her father was long heralded for his peaceful resistance to the government. And she has earned credibility through her intelligence and eloquence.”
Paya says she was forced into political exile two years ago by opponents who harassed and threatened her.
She has spent some time in Miami, she said, but stopped short of calling any U.S. city her home.
In May, she returned to Cuba and invited everyone she met to work for a plebiscite.
She said she is not advocating for violent overthrow. Rather, she wants people to have a voice and sees opportunity in the current political climate.
As the U.S. and Cuba renew relations, the eyes of the world are fixed on the island nation.
With the eyes of the world watching, pressure is on the Cuban government, she said.
“People in Cuba want change. This is the moment that can lead us to success.”
The Tampa Tribune