Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Project Varela at Twenty

Oswaldo Payá, Regis Iglesias, and Antonio Diaz, walk to turn in petitions

Twenty years ago today on May 10, 2002, carrying 11,020 signed petitions in support of the Varela Project, the Christian Liberation Movement's Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, Antonio Diaz Sanchez, and Regis Iglesias Ramirez delivered them to the Cuban National Assembly.

Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, in his 1999 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting observed that "the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." Memory provides context to unfolding events today, and helps to render informed judgements.

This blog entry is an exercise in recovering memory. 

The Varela Project, named after the Cuban Catholic Priest Felix Varela, sought to reform the Cuban legal system to bring it in line with international human rights standards. They had followed the letter of the law in organizing the campaign. They specifically asked for the following in the petition.

  • Guarantee the right to free expression and free association that guarantee pluralism, opening Cuban society to political debate and facilitating a more participatory democracy. 
  • Amnesty for all those imprisoned for political reasons.  
  • Right of Cubans to form companies, both individually owned and in cooperatives. 
  • Proposal for a new electoral law that truly guarantees the right to elect and be elected to all Cubans and the holding of free elections

The Christian Liberation Movement was founded by Catholic lay people in Havana in September 1988, and is part of a non-violent dissident movement that traces its origins and influences to the Cuban Committee for Human Rights that was founded in 1976.

President James Carter at the University of Havana.

Former President James Carter visited Cuba in May 2002 and on May 15th gave a speech at the University of Havana, where he advocated for the lifting of economic sanctions on Cuba and "called for the Varela Project petition to be published in the official newspaper so that people could learn about it."

Yet the dictatorship's response to the nonviolent citizen's initiative, and to President Carter's request, was to coerce Cubans into signing another petition declaring the Constitution unchangeable and quickly passed it through the rubber stamp legislature. 

 The Varela Project was not presented for debate before the National Assembly, which according to then existing law drafted by the Castro dictatorship meant that it should have been debated in that legislative body. 

On May 7, 2022 at the West Dade Regional Library (9445 Coral Way) in Miami, Florida,  the Christian Liberation Movement  hosted a discussion that commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Varela project in Cuba, its legacy and impact.

Project Varela organizers gathered at the West Dade Regional Library on May 7, 2022

Many of the participants on Saturday focused on the immediate aftermath of the first signatures being turned in, and the wave of repression that followed. 

Less than a year after the petitions were turned in, starting on March 18, 2003 the Cuban Spring would end with a massive crackdown on Cuba's civil society with many of the Project Varela organizers, imprisoned and summarily sentenced up to 28 years in prison. 

The 75 activists with long prison sentences became known as the "group of the 75."

With the end of the Cuban Spring Antonio Diaz Sanchez was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and Regis Iglesias Ramirez was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

The Castro regime announced, at the time, that the Cuban dissident movement had been destroyed. 

They spoke prematurely. 

First, the remaining activists who were still free continued gathering signatures and would turn in another 14,384 petition signatures on October 5, 2003, and they continued to gather more. 

Secondly, the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of the activists who had been detained and imprisoned organized themselves into the "Ladies in White." A movement that sought the freedom of their loved ones and organized regular marches through the streets of Cuba, despite regime organized violence visited upon them. This new movement was led by Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, a former school teacher.

Antonio Diaz Sanchez and Regis Iglesias Ramirez were released from prison into forced exile in 2010. Today marking this anniversary of the Varela Project, the Christian Liberation Movement released the following statement.

"Exactly 20 years ago, with hundreds of political prisoners in jail and a mostly terrified people, 11,020 Cubans peacefully demanded the freedom of political prisoners and free elections, so that Cubans could freely choose their political and economic model. 

The response of the tyranny was repression, exile and even murder. 

Two decades later, political prisoners multiply and terror expands on the island through repression, while the solidarity of many bows to petty interests, providing impunity to the regime, today more tyrannical and more despotic than ever. 

On the 20th anniversary of that civic gesture of the people of Cuba, honoring the memory of Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero and all those who have fallen in this struggle, thinking of the thousands of political prisoners who are today in communist dungeons, living with the Cuban people the lack of freedom and rights, we proclaim our will to continue working indefinitely together with the people, until freedom and democracy arrive in Cuba, which by right belongs to all Cubans. 




President Carter made a second trip to Cuba in March 2011, and did not publicly mention Project Varela during that visit, but instead focused efforts on trading Alan Gross for the remaining members of the WASP network jailed in the United States on charges of espionage, and murder conspiracy that killed three Americans and a US resident in 1996, and calling for the lifting of economic sanctions on the Castro regime. President Carter also downplayed the threat of FARC, ETA, and ELN terrorists harbored in Cuba.

Less than two months after the visit, Cuban dissident and former political prisoner, Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia (age 46) was arrested and beaten to death by Cuban regime police while protesting the dictatorship and died early on Sunday May 8, 2011. Months later on October 15, 2011 Laura Inés Pollán Toledo died under suspicious circumstances at the Calixto Garcia hospital.

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas was killed on July 22, 2012 together with Harold Cepero, a youth leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, in a car "accident" that all the hallmarks of a state security operation copied after the East German Stasi, who trained intelligence operatives in the Castro regime.

Revisiting and remembering these historic moments is part of the struggle against forgetting, and the conversation that it may arouse will only serve, when backed up with facts, to strengthen memory with truth. Memory, and retentiveness are defenses against the Castro regime's totalitarian rewriting of history. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signs bill designating Le Jeune Rd Oswaldo Payá Way

On May 9, 2022, the eve of the 20th anniversary of the first Varela Project petitions being turned in to the National Assembly in Cuba, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that designated "a portion of State Road 953, known as Le Jeune Road, between Northwest 11th Street and Northwest 14th Street in Miami-Dade County" as Oswaldo Payá Way. 

This was a concrete act against forgetting and in defense of this important legacy by free Cubans. 

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas in a July 14, 2003 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times provided context to the aftermath of Project Varela, and the March 18, 2003 crackdown in which 75 Cuban dissidents, many of them organizers of the petition drive were sentenced to prison terms of up to 28 years. 

"Cuba finds itself in a grave crisis. In the last few years, thousands of its citizens have participated in what’s known as the Varela Project, overcoming a culture of fear and calling for a national referendum on civil rights, the peaceful evolution of freedom and reconciliation. But now a cloud of terror hangs over that quest for change."

This analysis remains relevant today. 

No comments:

Post a Comment