Saturday, January 27, 2018

Remembering some of the victims of Cuban communism: Harold Cepero, a former Catholic seminarian

"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
Some psychologists argue that as the number of victims increase into the hundreds, and thousands that compassion collapses out of the human fear of being overwhelmed. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin put it more succinctly: "When one man dies it's a tragedy. When thousands die it's statistics." In the case of Cuba the communist regime has killed tens of thousands, and many have become numb in the face of this horror. Therefore on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first communist regime in Russia, that caused so much harm around the world, will focus on an infinitesimal sampling of some of the victims of Cuban communism.

The fourteenth entry remembers a young martyr: a former seminarian, who became a nonviolent human rights defender in a movement founded by lay Catholics, and was killed together with the movement's founding leader on July 22, 2012. He was just 32 years old.

Previous entries in this series were about Cubans trying to change the system nonviolently, Cubans who tried to leave the island, a student shot to death for walking down the wrong sidewalk in Havana, a young Ethiopian woman murdered in a red terror in her homeland for unknown reasons in 1978, and the eleventh entry three young black men executed by firing squad in 2003 for having hijacked a ferry in an effort to reach the United States. The thirteenth entry remembered two young men shot by firing squad in La Cabaña on April 18, 1961. They had been arrested on March 27, 1961 by Cuban secret police when they were found with weapons.

In this entry one explores how a Catholic youth, inspired by his faith defended human rights and dignity, took part in a national petition drive for the reform of the Cuban regime only to be killed under suspicious circumstances, involving Cuban state security.

Harold Cepero Escalante was born in the town of Chambas, then in the province of Ciego de Ávila ( but had been Camaguey until 1977), 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, Camaguey, and began his studies at the University of Camaguey. He also began, along with other university students, to take part in informal conversations with Father Alberto Reyes Pías.

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 (CLM) had followed the letter of the law in organizing the campaign.

 On May 10, 2002, after CLM 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 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.  

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 leaves the seminary and joins the Christian Liberation Movement and begins to coordinate its youth group and became a member of the Coordinating Council of the CLM.  He organized workshops on leadership training.

Three years later on July 22, 2012 Harold Cepero Escalante was killed along with Oswaldo Payá, the founder of the Christian Liberation Movement.

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante
On February 23, 2016 at the 8th edition of the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy Rosa María Payá  addressed what happened to her dad Oswaldo Payá and friend Harold Cepero, on July 22, 2012: 
"On July 22, 2012, my father was extrajudicially  executed by agents of the political police, together with my dear friend Harold Cepero, staging a car crash that never took place, in a location of Cuba that remains to be  determined. Not satisfied with this double crime, my family was threatened with death..."In the summer of 2015 a special report was released by Human Rights Foundation, where all  evidences indicate that this was a crime against humanity, with the involvement of Cuban  authorities.  We’ll never give up on justice, because there can be no reconciliation without the recognition  of the whole truth. A nation that pretends to forget the violence against its innocent people  will remain a captive nation. And it will be a nation condemned to suffer such violence over  and over again."
In 2013 Carl Gershman of the National Endowment for the Democracy when posthumously awarding the 2013 Democracy Award addressed the character of Harold Cepero Escalante:
"A friend of Harold’s recalls that on an organizing trip for his Movement, the two of them were once at a bus station when a hungry man asked for money to buy food. Although they themselves had very little, Harold not only gave him his own spending money but also brought the man to the table to sit and eat with them. Such was his compassion and generosity of spirit."
Harold Cepero understood the dangers of advocating for freedom in Cuba under the Castro regime. In 2012, shortly before his death he explained the cost of resistance:"Christians and non-Christians who have the courage and the freedom to consider the peaceful political option for their lives, know they are exposing themselves to slightly less than absolute solitude, to work exclusion, to persecution, to prison or death."

Harold Cepero Escalante


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