Seventy-four of Cuba's leading dissidents recently released a letter to the U.S. Congress in support of a House bill allowing unrestricted travel to Cuba by all Americans, not just those of Cuban descent. They simply wanted their voices heard on such an important issue. The group included Cuba's most famous blogger, current and former political prisoners, priests and a man who continues a hunger strike that has lasted more than 100 days.

Yet, the reaction from the hard-line segments of the exile community did not take long, and it was brutal. They dismissed it as ``manipulative'' and ``divisive,'' questioned the credibility and patriotism of the signers and launched an all-out attack on their integrity. Dissidents hailed as heroes a week earlier, are now vendepatrias (traitors) and are dismissed as stooges of forces of the dark.

Sadly, these hard-liners believe that the expression of opinions different from their own is an act of divisiveness. But they have gone much further. Hector Palacio, one of the leading dissidents and former political prisoner, said on a local TV telephonic appearance that everyone of the signers has been called by hard-liners, harassing them with threats and pressuring them to disavow their participation in the letter.

Sadly, this is nothing new. There is ample precedent for this despicable behavior. One recent example occurred in 2003 when world-renowned dissident, Oswaldo Paya, released his Varela Project.

The same cast of characters viciously attacked Paya and did all they could to discredit him and to keep him away from the powers in Washington.

They were relentless in their attacks, and U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart even succeeded in preventing Paya from meeting with President Bush during his visit to Washington. Cuba's state security couldn't have done it better. They found their perfect counterpart in Miami's hard-line.

A few months later, 75 dissidents, mostly associated with the Varela Project were rounded up by State Security, summarily tried and sentenced to long prison terms. Many are still languishing in jail. Some signed the letter.

The hard-liners practice an antidemocratic double standard. If they do it, and if it they like it, it is good and patriotic. If others do it, it is ``treason'' and ``divisive.'' They behave as if they were the sole voice of the exile and dissident communities. Instead of defending their points of view against dissenters, they resort to insults, slander and lies. They think the exile community is their franchise.

The letter caused Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart to become irate and vitriolic. He publicly labeled the members of the Cuba Study Group sly and malicious. It is hard to understand this behavior from someone whose position calls for being loftier and above the fray.

Others have insinuated the dissidents were ``manipulated,'' as if the signatories were naive children, uninformed and incapable of deciding for themselves whether or not to sign a letter. I often hear this offensive paternalistic argument used against financial aid for the dissidents because ``it can harm them.''

At the core of this letter is the fact that, for the first time, a large number of notable figures of Cuba's internal opposition have come together to express their personal opinions on an important current debate about U.S. policy toward Cuba. They recognize in their letter that while U.S. policy is not their competence, they are clearly disproportionally affected by it. While the exile community has always played a key role in promoting U.S. policy toward Cuba, the signers are reminding us that there is no parity in the consequences and impact of those policies. They bear the brunt of the impact.

The letter is also an important lesson for the future. The Cuban people have endured a dictatorship for more than 51 years. How to bring about change is not an easy task, as evidenced by an equally long record of a failed U.S. policy and exile actions. To the best of my knowledge, there does not exist a book or manual that contains the ``right'' answers about what to do, and thus new ideas and approaches are sorely needed.

In the presence of such a massive, collective failure, it never ceases to amaze me how some, from the comfort of American democracy, can tell the signers of the letter that their position on U.S. policy is ``completely mistaken,'' with the arrogance and authority of a divinely inspired possessor of the ``truth.'' Perhaps the anxiety about the letter results from the handwriting on the wall. The hard-liners are losing prominence, and their corner is shrinking.

With this letter, the internal opposition has sent a clear message to U.S. policy makers that they matter -- that they are capable of expressing themselves independently of the traditional exile proxies.

They refuse to continue to be pushed between the rock of the Cuban regime and the hard place of exile politics. They want to be listened to and respected, and they deserve to be. Perhaps this will become the letter's true legacy.

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