Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Columbia University Honors Oswaldo Pay� - WSJ An Honorable Honor

From: Maria C . Werlau
Date: Tue, 16 May 2006 17:44:31 EDT
Subject: Re: Columbia University Honors Oswaldo Pay�
To: reysmont@yahoo.com

Thanks so much for the offer to join you. How kind and generous of you!
Regrettably, I have commitments that will keep me away from the city tomorrow.
But, please let me know how things go.
Did you see the editorial in the WSJ? If not, see below.

Regards, Maria

MAY 12, 2006


College graduation season is upon us, and once again the list of commencement speakers and honorary-degree recipients makes interesting reading. Some are perennials on the May-June diploma circuit, like the famous faces � Tom Brokaw, Hillary Clinton� from show business and politics. Others are local figures well known chiefly to the audience they will be addressing.

Yet this year one man's name stands out, and not only because of hi personal accomplishments. By conferring a Doctor of Laws degree on Cuban opposition leader Oswaldo Pay�, Columbia University effectively honors every person in Cuba how shares his burden, dreams and goals.

A Columbia press release about the award summarizes those goals: "As a prominent human-rights organizer and director of the Varela Project, an effort to democratize Cuba's political system, Pay� is celebrated as an agent of nonviolent change.

In 2002, Varela collected thousands of signatures on a petition that called for, among other things, a referendum on electoral reform, free speech and private enterprise. The group then presented it to Cuba's national assembly. Later that year, Mr. Pay� traveled to Europe to accept the EU's highest human-rights award, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

By 2003, however, a brutal and continuing crackdown on democracy activists was in full swing in Cuba. Undeterred, Mr. Pay� and other Cubans continued their work, and this week in Havana, Pay� took another step, unveiling a proposal for a new Cuban constitution with guaranteed democratic freedoms.

As we went to press, there was not sign that Mr. Pay� will be granted the basic freedom to leave his country and receive his Honorary degree in person. Columbia formally invited him to its May 17 commencement ceremony a month ago. Yet it appears that Cuban authorities have not allowed him even to begin the Kafkaesque process of obtaining the various permits and stamps that would allow him to leave the island.

In truth, Castro could pick up the phone and have Mr. Pay�'s travel documents ready in hours if he wanted to. What's stopped him from doing that is not a concern about defection. What worries the regime most, in fact, is that Mr. Pay� has chosen to remain in Cuba.

That gives his words and actions powerful credibility abroad. He can't be dismissed, by Havana or its admirers in the West, as just another rabid Miami exile. He doesn't let himself get drawn into polarizing arguments about U.S. Cuba relations. He has told foreigners that his debate is in Cuba, with Castro, and he simply wants to be able to exercise his basic human rights.

Whether Mr. Pay� makes it to New York by Wednesday or not, Cubans struggling for democracy � in their homes or in prison� have taken the news from Columbia as a sign of moral solidarity and will feel stronger for it.

Sad to say, Columbia's choice of this honoree is a uniquely brave one in an academic universe where safe awards are the norm. Silly ones, too. The Web site of the Chronicle of Higher Education at http://www.chronicle.com/ contains a list of commencement speakers around the country from 2000 to 2006. Jon Bon Jovi is not the only baffling name on it.

At any rate, it's one thing for the University of Oklahoma at Norman to Offer Katie Couric $115,000 plus an honorary degree to speak at its commencement, when she's abundantly free on TV. More noxious is the way that United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been routinely trotted out on commencement days as an example to mankind, despite his abysmal record as a protector of human rights.

So this year, it's gratifying to see that Columbia has raised the bar higher and included among its distinguished honorees a man who symbolizes indubitable courage and conviction. May the graduates of 2006 be inspired by this example, wherever life next takes them.

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