By JUAN O. TAMAYO
Herald Staff Writer
He is Cuba's best-known dissident, a veteran of eight years in prison and nearly a dozen arrests, a man decorated by the president of France, feted by the president of Spain and received grandly from Rome to Washington.
Yet Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz remains an enigma to many, proponent of a deal with President Fidel Castro that he admits Castro is unlikely to accept, a socialist who admits he is a minority among dissidents.
He wants a peaceful transition but warns that violence may be just around the corner.
``Peaceful change is not impossible. It is very difficult, but not impossible,'' Sanchez said during a recent Miami stopover in the world travels he launched since leaving Cuba on Dec. 7 -- with a round-trip ticket.
He never forgets the island's grim reality. Using a friend's air-conditioned office, with a multiline telephone and a secretary to handle calls, he muses about his often-broken phone and long-defunct car in Havana.
A call comes in from a Miami human rights activist who wants to talk. ``In Havana, I'd have to get on a bicycle all day just to see someone,'' he said, allowing himself a rare smile.
But for now Sanchez is on a world tour that has brought recognition to himself and the dissidence movement in Cuba at a time when the Havana government appears bent on tightening control measures.
`A new phenomenon'
``This is a new phenomenon, to be received abroad as a serious political alternative'' to the Castro government and not just as a human rights activist, said Ricardo Bofill of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights.
Sanchez's travel log reads almost like a head of state's -- to Paris to meet with the president of France and the director general of UNESCO; Spain to see President Jose Maria Aznar; Portugal to meet with the country's president and prime minister; Holland to see the foreign minister; Italy to see the president and a top aide to Pope John Paul II.
He was in Washington last week to meet with Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria and now faces the toughest part of his schedule, a swing through Latin America to lay out his vision before national leaders and public opinion.
Cuba is headed into trouble, he says. A Havana University professor of Marxist philosophy until he broke with Castro 30 years ago this month, Sanchez still uses the term ``fundamental contradictions'' to describe the crisis.
An economy that seemed on the rebound last year is about to plunge again, he said. ``Social tensions are increasing all the time, and the political base of support for the government is shrinking.''
``This year and next are going to be crucial for our future,'' he said. Unless the island begins a peaceful transition toward a better system soon, he warns, the change certain to begin after Castro dies may well be violent.
His proposal: to persuade the European Union and the OAS to move the Cuba issue off its perennial U.S.-Cuba axis and make Castro ``a Mario Puzo offer'' -- an offer he can't refuse.
Castro has steadfastly vowed he would not embrace significant reforms while alive, no doubt fearing they would undermine his government. But what if he is offered international recognition and legitimacy for his revolution while still alive?
Abandon the U.S. embargo, the Torricelli Act and Helms-Burton, Sanchez says. Resume Cuba's membership in the OAS. Lend economic aid for Cuba's reconstruction.
In exchange, the world would ask Cuba (``I never use the word pressure. It just has the opposite effect on Castro,'' Sanchez said) to release all political prisoners, revoke such laws as one banning ``enemy propaganda'' and legalize all nongovernment organizations.
``There can be no short-term goal of open, multiparty elections, of freedom of the press,'' he said. ``If politics is the art of the possible, then the possible is a gradual transformation based on existing law.''
Such positions have angered both Castro as well as conservative dissidents and some exiles.
WCMQ radio host Caridad Roque last week said Sanchez was looking ``to prolong Castro's tyranny, not end it.'' A dissident in Havana called him ``too worried about confrontation to be an effective leader.'' A Western diplomat who deals with Sanchez regularly said he is ``a source of both unity and disunity'' among dissidents.
Yet Sanchez was surprisingly well received in some exile circles -- a lengthy meeting with Jorge Mas Canosa was described by a Cuban American National Foundation member as ``intriguing'' -- and he remains unapologetic.
``Exiles broke with Castro from the right. I broke from the left,'' he said, recalling that he was expelled from Havana University in 1967 for criticizing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the ``cult of personality'' around Castro.
His next job: night watchman at a dry cleaning store.
Sanchez expects to begin the Latin America leg of his world tour in the next few days and head back to Cuba in late March -- hopefully carrying with him EU and OAS promises to start jawboning with Castro.
He will leave in Miami the family he sent into exile in 1980 to spare them midnight searches and constant arrests -- wife, Margarita; daughter Maria Eugenia, 24, and son Francisco, 22.
He worries that Castro may not allow him back. But he has a Cuban re-entry permit paid, he notes with a wink, by the very French government that invited him to Paris to receive its top human rights award.
Sanchez scoffed at widespread rumors in Havana that Castro might make a gesture to Europe by allowing Sanchez and another dissident, Oswaldo Paya, to win neighborhood-level elections expected in November. Winners can run in later elections for municipal, provincial and national posts.
``The presence of a dissident in the National Assembly would not be a valuable change,'' he said, ``because this is the most independent government in history -- independent of world opinion, independent of its own people, independent of moral conscience.''
Instead, Sanchez said, he will return to his human rights work -- listening to people who bring complaints to his home in Havana's Miramar neighborhood, totaling the grim numbers for reports that he sends abroad and helping to found new human rights groups in Cuba.
The politics of transition and reconciliation, he said, is only a temporary part of his work.
``I am not really a politician. I am a human rights activist,'' Sanchez said, his voice growing tight with emotion. ``Now, and during the transition and afterward, because that's what Cuba is going to need.
``This is work that is going to be going on for generations.''
Copyright © 1997 The Miami Herald
Copyright © 1997 The Miami Herald