Friday, March 17, 2023

Remembering two Cuban Springs

Winter arrives

Jose Cipriano Rodriguez, corporal in Batista's regime, prepared for firing squad (1959).

Winter arrived in Cuba in 1959, and its darkest nights continued into 1969 when the Castro regime ended Christmas under the pretext of conducting the 10 million ton sugar harvest. It was supposed to be a temporary measure, but Christmas did not return until 1997.

The Castro dictatorship replaced the family as the primary unit of social organization in Cuba during this darkest of winters. By doing so, it displaced the family and encouraged family members to spy on one another, creating widespread mistrust that persists today.

During this time, the Castro dictatorship's prison inmates were the keepers of Cuba’s human rights and democratic legacy, which later emerged in 1976 when the Cuban Committee for Human Rights was founded.

First thaw
Ricardo Bofill, Cuban Committee for Human Rights, Havana 1987

The international community first learned about their human rights reports through paper scraps they smuggled out of these prisons. The scandal that followed forced the Castro dictatorship 12 years later to allow visits from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch to Cuba and the prisons throughout the island. This thaw lasted between 1988 and 1989.

Many resistance organizations were formed during this time and in the years that followed. One of these organizations was the Christian Liberation Movement, which was founded in 1988.

Over the course of 10 years, this movement discovered ways to mobilize the Cuban people and demand that the communist government uphold its own laws and regulations, which on paper purported to include democratic components but were not observed in fact.

The Brothers to the Rescue shootdown on February 24, 1996
, which resulted in the deaths of four human rights advocates, prompted the adoption of the Cuban Democracy and Solidarity Act on March 12, 1996, which tightened sanctions on Havana.

Castro decided that the Pope visiting Cuba would be a good way to obtain favorable coverage for the regime in its efforts to relax or lift sanctions.

When Spring started in December

March 18, 2003: End of the Cuban Spring?

In the weeks leading up to the first Papal visit to Cuba, the Castro regime relaxed certain restrictions on the Catholic church in December 1997. "The church was granted permission to conduct open-air services and processions. Lay workers were allowed to go door-to-door to inform parishioners of the visit and the church had access to media for the publishing of the Pope's Christmas message in Granma by allowing a televised speech by Cardinal Ortega, and by providing at the last minute, live coverage of the papal masses."

The return of Christmas was also supposed to be a temporary measure, in honor of Pope John Paul II's apostolic visit to Cuba (January 21- 26, 1998) . However, 25 years later Christmas continues to be celebrated in Cuba.

Some have pointed to this Papal visit as the beginning of a Cuban spring, where cracks appeared in the totalitarian edifice of Cuba’s communist dictatorship that over five years, forever changed the island nation.

The Cuban Democratic Directorate published Steps to Freedom analyzing democratic resistance beginning in 1997 with 44 civic actions, saw an increase to 233 civic actions in 1999, following Pope John Paul II's visit, then 444 in 2000, 600 in 2001, 959 in 2002, and 1,328 in 2003.

The Christian Liberation Movement, founded in 1988, following the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II launched their most ambitious initiative, the Varela Project, named after the Cuban Priest, Felix Varela, who in the 19th century was credited with being the one who taught Cubans how to think. Father Varela sought Cuban independence, and was a fierce opponent of slavery.

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. 

Former President James Carter visited Cuba in May 2002. On May 15th Mr. Carter 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."

Havana’s response to this nonviolent citizen's initiative, and to President Carter's request? Coerced Cubans into signing another petition declaring the Constitution unchangeable and quickly passed it through the rubber stamp legislature.

The Varela Project was never presented for debate before the National Assembly, which violated the regime’s existing laws.

Winter returned in March

Ten months later on March 18, 2003 the secret police began rounding up Cubans who had made the Varela Project possible. Seventy five activists would be put on trial and condemned to long prison terms. Over 40 of them had taken part in the initiative. It was the end of a Cuban Spring, but the democracy movement knew that Spring would return.

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