Paya: "Cloud of Terror Hangs Over Cubans"

Walter Lippmann walterlx at
Thu Jul 17 16:07:51 MDT 2003

(This op-ed by Oswaldo Paya appeared
in the Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2003.)

Los Angeles Times

Cloud of Terror Hangs Over Cubans Seeking Rights
By Oswaldo Payá
July 14, 2003

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.

Since March 18, Cuban state security has detained dozens of
human rights activists, independent journalists and
opposition leaders. Nearly 80 people have been locked away
after summary trials, accused of collusion with the U.S.
government. Their families have been terrorized and their
homes ransacked - without turning up the evidence of weapons
or violent plots that the government claimed it would find.

The crackdown is an act against civil society, against
fundamental rights and against the Varela Project. Among
those detained are almost the entire executive leadership of
the Christian Liberation Movement, which gave birth to the
project. More than half of the detainees are project

Through the project, named for crusading priest Father Felix
Varela, 11,020 citizens petitioned the National Assembly in
May 2002 requesting a referendum to guarantee Cuban civil
liberties: freedom of expression and association, the right
to own a private business (foreigners can own businesses in
Cuba but nationals cannot), the release of nonviolent
political prisoners and the right to directly elect
representatives in free elections (the current system allows
only for the endorsement of candidates selected by the
government's committees).

The project's road map toward these goals follows the
country's legal code. Article 88g of the Cuban constitution
allows citizens, supported by petitions signed by at least
10,000 voters, to propose legislation. And, although it's
fraught with contradictions, the constitution also includes
articles protecting the rights the Varela Project promotes.

Since the project's earliest days, the Cuban government has
responded by unleashing a campaign of intimidation,
confiscating signed petitions and encouraging violence and
vandalism against the families and property of signature
collectors. Agents have visited the homes of thousands of
Varela petition signers. Some have been subpoenaed to appear
at state security offices, some have lost their jobs or been
expelled from universities, some have been blacklisted.
Campaigns attacking the project and its leaders unfolded in
Cuba. Also, a vocal and powerful minority within the Miami
exile community took to the airwaves unleashing verbal
attacks against the project and its leaders. They shared
many of the same ideas, voiced with strikingly similar
pejorative words and phrases.

And the response to the 11,000 signatures? Through the
Communist Party, citizens were ordered to the streets to
participate in massive marches against the project's goals,
though the project was never named. The government also
began its own petition initiative using well-oiled methods
of deception and intimidation; it claims to have gathered 8
million signatures for a constitutional amendment that makes
the present one-party system "irrevocable."

Still, the amendment didn't nullify Article 88g, and the
Varela Project survives.

In 2002, shortly before the signatures went to the National
Assembly, former President Jimmy Carter visited Cuba. He
praised the project in a nationally televised speech,
introducing it to millions who had never before heard of it.
More names were added to the project's lists. Parallel
efforts for change on the part of journalists, human rights
activists, priests, nuns and others gained momentum. Never
before had so many citizens organized from within Cuba to
claim their rights.

And then came the latest crackdown.

Yet the government's actions only promote confrontation as a
means of resolution. We are determined to continue the
Varela Project until the changes Cubans need are realized.
Cuban citizens must be permitted to exercise their
constitutional rights.

Support from nations, churches and human rights
organizations around the world is vital to our success. This
is the time to put pressure on the Cuban government. This is
the time to insist on the release of all political prisoners
and detainees. This is the time for solidarity with the
Cuban people and their quest for change.


Oswaldo Payá is the national coordinator of the Citizens
Committee for the promotion of the Varela Project in Cuba
and an activist in the Christian Liberation Movement. In
December, he was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of
Thought by the European Parliament.

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