Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and The New York Times: A Case Study

"We won't engage in pacts behind the people's back or a place in arrangements where they're excluded" - Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, quoted by Rosa Maria over twitter on December 16

Ignored by The New York Times for 21 years of his activism

Three years, five months, and one day ago on July 22, 2012 Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante were killed under suspicious circumstances that point to a state security operation carried out by agents of the Castro regime.

In a previous post outlined the long romance between The New York Times and the Castro regime that began in 1957. In this one it is worth looking at the coverage given to one of Cuba's most important dissident leaders. Based on a search of The New York Times database the Grey Lady began reporting on Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas on May 11, 2002 at what amounted to a total of 13 stories. Four of these stories followed his untimely death.

13 years, 8 months, 4 days before Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas's first mention in The New York Times he founded the Christian Liberation Movement on September 8, 1988, in a country where independent organizations were and continue to be outlawed by the dictatorship, and had it become a national movement despite all the obstacles it faced. 

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas announced his intention to run for office in 1992 as an independent candidate to the rubber stamp National Assembly of People's Power exercising his constitutional right run for office. Two days prior to the meeting to accept applications he is publicly arrested at home and publicly paraded through the neighborhood to intimidate his neighbors. Communist party members threaten him that "blood will flow if he presents [his candidacy] at the meeting." In the end the Communist party members held a meeting under guard with only a few of their followers. The inability of the Cuban regime to respect its own laws as established in the Constitution was dramatically exposed. The New York Times did not see this as news fit to print.
On October 10, 1995
Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas as one of the organizers of the Cuban Council that sought to unify the opposition around a nonviolent program of national reconciliation made an official request to the Cuban authorities to hold a national dialogue on the future of Cuba on February 24, 1996. The Castro regime's response was a massive crackdown on the days leading up to February 24 and the shoot down of two civilian planes on that day over international airspace. This netted a few lines in an article focused on Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s visit to Cuba to advance the normalization of relations on February 19, 1996. Oswaldo and the other dissidents, including those detained were not mentioned.
Despite the crackdown and the aftermath of the Brothers to the Rescue shoot down, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas carried on and in 1997 collected signatures and presented them to run for a seat in the National Assembly. The Election Commission refused to accept his candidacy.  Oswaldo responded by declaring that the election law did not respect the sovereignty of the people, that it was unconstitutional and demanded that it be scrapped in favor of a democratic election law. The regime's response was to slander Oswaldo Payá in the official media.
The New York Times did not see this as news fit to print.
On January 22, 1998 the Christian Liberation Movement makes public the Varela Project and begins gathering signatures for a referendum to reform Cuban laws and bring it in line with the respect of fundamental human rights using a clause in Cuban law that citizen's can propose laws via a petition with 10,000 signatures. 
The New York Times did not see this as news fit to print.

In 1999 Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas drafts the declaration "All United" that seeks to carry out the goals that had already been proposed by the Cuban Council back in 1995 and on this occasion despite repression and harassment he is successful and the democratic opposition is able to hold its first national assembly.
The New York Times did not see this as news fit to print.

Oswaldo is mentioned for the first time in the pages of the Grey Lady on May 10, 2002 in the article "In Time for Carter's Visit, Cubans Petition Government" when it announced a historic moment in the space of six paragraphs:
"Two days before a historic visit to Cuba by the former President Jimmy Carter, human rights activists today delivered an extraordinary challenge to the Communist government of President Fidel Castro in the form of petitions signed by more than 11,000 people seeking greater freedom.
The petition drive, known as the Varela Project, calls for a referendum under the terms of the Cuban Constitution on whether there should be more freedom of expression, an amnesty for political prisoners and a chance for ordinary citizens to own small businesses.
The signed petitions were delivered this morning to the National Assembly, after supporters painstakingly verified each signature, in the most significant peaceful effort to bring reform to Cuba in four decades.
''All of these Cubans, who with great courage and sacrifice have signed Project Varela, are the social vanguard for peaceful change in Cuba,'' said Oswaldo Paya, who led the drive. He said changes in the rights of Cubans could only be achieved peacefully.
The delivery of the petitions seemed timed to coincide with the visit by Mr. Carter, who made human rights a leading issue of his presidency. Not everyone in the dissident community supported the move. Some had rejected the petitions because the proposed referendum would be carried out by a political system they consider illegitimate.
President Castro made no mention of the drive during a speech tonight addressing another issue that arose in advance of Mr. Carter's visit."
Other than referring to the Cuban dictator as president those six paragraphs provide a decent report on what happened. The trouble that it did not end there. The New York Times linked these six paragraphs to another ten paragraphs in the same story beginning with "Mr. Castro denounced as 'sinister lies' the State Department's accusation this week that his government was developing germ warfare capabilities and sharing them with rogue nations." Why did The New York Times link a citizen initiative to charges of germ warfare by the State Department and contested by the Castro regime in the same article?

This was followed up by an article on October 13, 2002 titled "Cuba Can't Ignore a Dissident It Calls Insignificant" which again focused on President Jimmy Carter's trip to the island and public support for the initiative which highlighted the regime's own signature drive without explaining its coercive nature and ended with pressing the Cuban opposition leader on acknowledging that not all foreign visitors had embraced the Project Varela. Nevertheless Oswaldo Paya was able to outline the stakes:
''Cuba has a great threat of violence, and its future depends on how change is made,'' he said. ''What Fidel Castro proposes are two very clear things: that his government is absolute until he dies and that the group in power with him get richer and prepare to be the new oligarchy. It is urgent for us that the changes come now. The only possible way out of that is with a peaceful civic movement.''
 On October 24, 2002 in a one paragraph World Brief, The New York Times reported that the European Parliament had awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas.  On January 18, 2003 in an article titled "Cuban Dissident Ends Tour Hopeful of Democratic Reform" reported the following:
"Mr. Paya, who is also the founder of the Christian Liberation Movement, began his trip last month when Havana allowed him to travel outside Cuba to receive the European Union's top human rights prize. He has since met with Pope John Paul II and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell."
No mention was made that the group that one of the groups that hosted Oswaldo Payá's visit to Miami was the Cuban Democratic Directorate which fully supported the Varela Project although having what critics describe as a "hard line" supporting economic sanctions against the Castro regime. Nor did The New York Times report how the president of the organization, Javier De Cespedes traveled to Cuba in May of 2001 and signed the Varela Project in Oswaldo's home.  

The New York Times reporting on the Black Cuban Spring in March of 2003 made mention of the opposition leader and quoted him but also cast a more sinister light on the opposition using the Castro regime's talking points justifying the crackdown comparing the round up of 80 opposition activists with the round ups following the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Equating a nonviolent petition drive which challenges the system within its own "legality" has no comparison to an act of terrorism, but The New York Times following the Castro playbook did just that.
"Cuban officials have compared their roundup of dissidents to the United States' mass arrests after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Mr. Payá said such accusations were part of the government's relentless defamation campaign against him.
''That mocks people's intelligence,'' he said. ''We are claiming our rights.''
But the threat felt by the Cuban government is real, diplomats and political analysts said, because the project relies on Cuba's own system to bring about change."
Two months later on May 20, 2003 found the opposition leader denouncing the Castro regime's claim that the United States was going to invade Cuba to justify its repression with The New York Times reporting on the pro-Castro campaign in the same article.

The next time that The New York Times mentioned Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas was in a June 29, 2004 David Brooks column titled "Kerry's Cruel Realism" in which the author took then presidential candidate John Kerry to task for calling the Varela Project. Kerry ''counterproductive." The next mention of Oswaldo Payá in in the pages of The New York Times would be the report of his death on July 23, 2012 by Damien Cave.

Although The New York Times chose not to report on the Cuban dissident leaders activities following the 2003 the crackdown and his untimely death in 2012 it is worth highlighting some of the actions he carried out during those nine years that may also explain the Grey Lady's silence.

Seven months after the massive crackdown on October 3, 2003 Oswaldo Payá personally delivers another 14,000 signatures for the Varela Project demanding a referendum.

On December 12, 2003 Oswaldo Payá launched a national dialogue that in the end involved over 12,000 Cubans in 3,000 discussion groups in and out of Cuba to obtain a consensus on how to transition from the current system to a democratic one via concrete, nonviolent and legal means while also discussing the challenges that would be faced by a transitional government in governing this led in 2005 to the document: "All Cubans Program" and a pledge to continue the dialogue.
On December 18, 2007 he launched the Heredia Project which demanded that the right of Cubans to enter and exit their homeland be recognized and respected, a right systematically denied them by the Cuban regime.
On July 13, 2011 he announced a petition drive called "The People's Path" that once again generated a broad based coalition of support in the island and set out a path for change. The campaign is still underway.
In the final months before his untimely death on July 22, 2012, Oswaldo Payá, was denouncing the fraudulent change taking place in Cuba as the underlying nature of the regime remained unchanged while cosmetic efforts were made to improve its international image.

The articles following his death were unfortunately too predictable and giving the benefit of the doubt to the dictatorship that killed him while at the same time seeking to sow discord in the democratic opposition while trying to put the best face on the Obama administration's failed Cuba policy.

Fake Change in Cuba
Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas speaking on behalf of the Christian Liberation Movement in Havana on March 30, 2012, just four months prior to his untimely death,  bravely denounced the fraudulent change that was then taking shape and that is being supported by The New York Times:

Our Movement denounces the regime's attempt to impose a fraudulent change, i.e. change without rights and the inclusion of many interests in this change that sidesteps democracy and the sovereignty of the people of Cuba. The attempt to link the Diaspora in this fraudulent change is to make victims participate in their own oppression. The Diaspora does not have to "assume attitudes and policies in entering the social activity of the island." The Diaspora is a Diaspora because they are Cuban exiles to which the regime denied rights as it denies them to all Cubans. It is not in that part of oppression, without rights, and transparency that the Diaspora has to be inserted, that would be part of a fraudulent change. 
What real change would look like
Oswaldo Payá in the same statement outlined that authentic change was contingent upon a principled path of action not economic determinism:
The gradual approach only makes sense if there are transparent prospects of freedom and rights. We Cubans have a right to our rights. Why not rights? It is time. That is the peaceful change that we promote and claim. Changes that signifies freedom, reconciliation, political pluralism and free elections. Then the Diaspora will cease being a Diaspora, because all Cubans will have rights in their own free and sovereign country. That is why we fight.
 The New York Times has had a romance since 1957 with a murderous thug who came to power through a struggle that combined terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and an awful lot of lies, but never became enamored of a democrat who spoke truth to power, denounced terrorism and was a consistent human rights champion. Shame on The New York Times.

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