Friday, July 22, 2022

Remembering Harold Cepero Escalante: the seminarian who became a human rights defender

"Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world." - Mishnah  (1135-1204)

Harold Cepero Escalante (January 29, 1980 - July 22, 2012)

Harold Cepero Escalante was born in the town of Chambas, in the province of Ciego de Ávila on January 29, 1980. He was drawn to his local Catholic Church in Chambas while in High School. 

In 1998, at age 18 he moved to Cuba's third largest city, Camagüey, and began his studies at the University of Camagüey. He also began, along with other university students, to take part in informal conversations with Father Alberto Reyes Pías.

Student expelled for signing the Varela Project

In 2002 Harold together with other university students signed the Varela Project.

The Varela Project, named after the 19th century Cuban Catholic Priest Felix Varela who resisted Spanish colonialism, was a citizen initiative that gathered signatures to hold a referendum to change existing laws in order to reform the Cuban legal system to bring it in line with international human rights standards. The Christian Liberation Movement (MLC) had followed the letter of the law in organizing the campaign.

 On May 10, 2002, after MLC turned in 11,020 signatures exceeding the 10,000 required by the regime,  the dictatorship's response to the nonviolent citizen's initiative was to first coerce Cubans into signing another petition declaring the Constitution unchangeable.

Harold knew that this regime pushed petition drive was a direct reaction to the Varela Project and refused to sign it. He also began to explain this among students at the university in the dormitories and hallways without fear. This is when the threats of expulsion from the university began.

The dictatorship's "petition" quickly passed through the rubber stamp legislature without debating the Varela Project, which according to the Cuban law drafted by the regime meant that it should have been debated by the National Assembly.

On November 13, 2002 State Security organized a mob to judge and expel Harold Cepero and Yoan Columbié, another youth who signed the Varela Project. They were screamed at, insulted, threatened and finally expelled.

This is a 2002 interview with Harold Cepero, and other students expelled from school for signing the Varela Project.

This is the letter that Harold wrote in protest following his expulsion from the University.

 With all due respect and the sincerity that they deserve, I think the arguments abound for our defense. Apparently the motive for this act, or I do not know how to call it, is our bad attitude towards the politics that prevail in our country today. The other, our approval of the Varela Project.I will start by saying that said project is a project of law signed by over eleven thousand Cubans (electors) and gathers up the fundamental needs of our people. I do not know why they are attempting (you who are now in a privileged situation with respect to us and those who think like us) to repress something that is not motivated by, nor has its origin in the hatred of the people, but rather in  openness, mutual respect, and dialogue.

They from their condition as: students, professors, PCC, UJC, etc., are breaking the law of the Republic. They are trying to trample on our dignity, that is of equal worth to theirs, a recognition and legal status to develop fully. Therefore, I think it totally unfair what they are attempting to do. This is a violation of international law, the Constitution and above all against our people.

The Varela Project is totally legal and recognized publicly by Fidel Castro. Also, if we support it because we believe it is just and so I would like them to consider it. The things we ask for do not exclude anyone, we simply want a space (which belongs to us) in the social life of Cuba.

Expelling us is not the solution neither for them or for us, it would be better to ask yourself why are there young people who are filled with concern and worry for the welfare of the country. It would be good that they explain to the students and to the people what the Varela Project is, what does it ask, and so give everyone the right to think and choose.

Today we are kicked out of the university for this. Tomorrow it could be one of you for just being different, for permitting yourself to think.

They are wanting to perpetuate something that it is not even known if it is fair, and in this manner they are denying the progress of a society that wants something new, something that really guarantees a dignified place for every Cuban. They are pressuring people or preventing them from expressing their true feelings, they are cultivating fear in the nation.

Under the pretext of defending freedom they are attacking it. Martí would say it like this: "The knife that is stabbed in the name of freedom is plunged into the chest of freedom". They should think if at the bottom of this attitude there is a real respect for freedom, because to say freedom, to be free, is not to snatch the freedom of others. I therefore ask that before they expel us ask themselves how long can they keep silent the mourning and the reality of Cuba, and remind them that the damage they can do to us is damage that they do to themselves. And more: it is a direct threat to every Cuban.

Those who steal the rights of others steal from themselves. Those who remove and crush freedom are the true slaves.

Scores of Varela Project activists were arrested less than a year later in a crackdown that started on March 18, 2003 and became known as the Cuban Black Spring. Within days 75 human rights defenders, independent journalists, and Varela Project organizers were sentenced to long prison terms and recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. Other Varela Project petitioners were threatened with the death penalty.   

Leaves seminary, and becomes a human rights defender

In 2003 Harold entered  the Seminary of the City of Camaguey and spent the next two years there. In 2005 he is transferred to the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary in Havana. 

In 2009, Harold left the seminary and joined the Christian Liberation Movement and begins to coordinate its youth group and became a member of the Coordinating Council of the MLC.  He organized workshops on leadership training.

Harold understood that those who engaged in repression were also not free stating "[t]hose who remove and crush freedom are the real slaves."

Martyred ten years ago today.

Three years later on July 22, 2012 Harold Cepero Escalante was killed in Bayamo, Granma with Oswaldo Payá, the founder of the Christian Liberation Movement while on their way to conduct trainings in Eastern Cuba. 

Investigations, and a hearing over the past decade

On July 22, 2015, Javier El-Hage and Roberto González of the Human Rights Foundation released a 147-page report titled The Case of Oswaldo Payá concluded it was "the result of a car crash directly caused by agents of the State, acting (1) with the intent to kill Oswaldo Payá and the passengers in the vehicle he was riding, (2) with the intent to inflict grievous bodily harm to them, or (3) with reckless or depraved indifference to an unjustifiably high risk to the life of the most prominent Cuban activist in the last twenty-five years and the passengers riding with him in the car."

On December 14, 2021 a hearing was held at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on "Case 14.196 - Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, Harold Cepero and others vs Cuba." 

On May 19, 2022 the documentary short, "The truth about the murder of Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero" premiered worldwide and was streamed over Youtube. 

Take action

People of goodwill that wish to send a message to the international community that the deaths of Oswaldo and Harold need to be investigated should sign the petition circulated by the Christian Liberation Movement. They are demanding truth and justice for their murdered founder Oswaldo Payá, and murdered youth leader Harold Cepero.

Please use the hashtags #PayáVive #OswaldoYHaroldViven along with quotes by Oswaldo and/or Harold Cepero with a link to the petition.

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