Change Coming to Cuba?

Founder of Island’s Christian Liberation Movement Discusses Release of Political Prisoners

FREE BUT EXILED. Released Cuban political prisoner Ricardo Gonzalez gestures next to Julio Cesar Galvez, left, and Omar Ruiz as they arrive for a news conference at Barajas airport in Madrid July 13. The men were among seven former political prisoners who arrived in Madrid with their families — the first of 52 dissidents the Cuban government has promised to free in a historic policy shift.
FREE BUT EXILED. Released Cuban political prisoner Ricardo Gonzalez gestures next to Julio Cesar Galvez, left, and Omar Ruiz as they arrive for a news conference at Barajas airport in Madrid July 13. The men were among seven former political prisoners who arrived in Madrid with their families — the first of 52 dissidents the Cuban government has promised to free in a historic policy shift. (photo: CNS photo/Juan Medina, Reuters)

Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Cuba announced July 7 that the Castro regime has agreed to release 52 prisoners of conscience.

They are the remaining prisoners of 75 arrested in March 2003 for participating in the “Varela Project,” the most powerful democracy effort in Cuba’s recent history, inspired by 19th-century priest Father Felix Varela.

The Varela Project was organized by Oswaldo Payá Sardinas, 58, a devout Catholic who founded the Christian Liberation Movement (Movimiento Cristiano Liberacion) in 1987. Since 2003, Payá has bravely continued nonviolent opposition to the regime, although most of the movement’s leadership was jailed. His family’s house, under 24-hour police surveillance, has nevertheless served as the major point of communication between prisoners and their families.

After the regime decimated the Varela Project, Payá initiated a national dialogue engaging some 13,000 Cubans mainly through home-based discussion groups about Cuba’s future. These proposals were compiled as a “Program for All Cubans,” describing a transition to democracy. Small groups continue to meet as part of an “All Cubans Forum” dedicated to nonviolent change and human rights.

Two years ago, Payá restarted the Varela Project, which involves collecting signatures on a petition for a national referendum demanding basic democratic reforms.

Sitting in his modest house, near a large portrait of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Payá discussed with Register correspondent Victor Gaetan the origins of the Christian Liberation movement, the nature of oppression in Cuba, and the nation’s future. By telephone July 11, he added his thoughts about the anticipated release of his friends and former colleagues. The interview will continue tomorrow and Thursday.

What is your response to the archbishop’s announcement that 52 prisoners of conscience, currently jailed across the island, will be released?

First, we give thanks to God for this welcome announcement. And we give special thanks to the Catholic Church in Cuba. Not only did the Church manage this measure of releasing our brothers, the many religious figures in Cuba — priests, sisters, bishops, laity — have provided comfort to political prisoners and their families and continue to give this support.

Each of the prisoners has suffered so much. Their families have suffered so much pain — not just the separation, but being ostracized and pushed out of jobs or school as a result. The government has continued intimidating and harassing them, prisoners and family members, constantly over the last seven years. Yet, the prisoners have borne suffering heroically. And their families, [who make up an organization called] the Ladies in White, have emerged as symbols of dignity, of strength. So, of course, we are very glad to see this end.

We sincerely hope this gesture will create a new climate of dialogue among Cubans. We hope it is the first step in much greater change, greater freedom to come.

Our happiness is balanced with sadness, though. For if a man is given the false choice between staying in jail or leaving the country he loves, this is forced exile. You are not respecting his dignity. The Christian Liberation Movement has always asked for the release of all prisoners with no conditions.

If the regime would allow the prisoners to choose where to live, what to do next, that would be a real message of change. But the government is not talking to the prisoners, let alone the people, about this process. Don’t the people have a right to understand what is happening, what this release means? The government is not talking to the opposition either, although we represent specific programs for democratic change which people want.

So, if the government is releasing our colleagues just to deport them, then there’s no political breakthrough. We fear that new prisoners will simply replace the ones released.

Does the regime continue to jail people who dare to speak or act against it?

Absolutely. Last October, the Varela Project’s leader in Santiago de Cuba, Augustin Cervantes, was sentenced to two years for a ridiculous charge: He was charged with assault — against a man who broke into his house and attacked him with a knife. But when he was sentenced, his democracy activities, and the Varela Project specifically, were mentioned. His trial was a farce. It was all about intimidation. This happens all the time. Since last summer, almost every month, we suffer arrests and incarcerations. Several of our activists were attacked by thugs last month. Their crime? Peaceful discussions about the rights we Cubans do not have.

So, we have political prisoners in Cuba who are, tragically, so far, not included in the high-profile amnesty announced last week.

For the prisoner release to represent real change for Cuba and Cuban citizens, first, all political prisoners must be released, unconditionally, and second, the gesture must be accompanied by legal guarantees allowing freedom of speech, freedom to travel, freedom to associate. Until the regime legally guarantees these rights, there is no real process of change. We have been waiting 51 years for this, and we do not want to wait any longer.

Describe what the Varela Project was, and is, all about.

On one level, it is a very simple law project, begun in 1998. Article 88g of Cuba’s 1976 Constitution says that if at least 10,000 voters sign a petition to support a draft law, then the National Assembly must consider it. Voters have to include all their data: addresses, national ID numbers, and signatures.

The Project Varela petition endorses a referendum on five essential issues: freedom of expression and association, including a free press; amnesty for all political prisoners; the right to own private businesses; a new, democratic electoral law; and free elections.

On a higher level, the Varela Project represents a critical assertion of individual dignity and worth. It challenges: Have faith and be inspired! There is something you can do. You can act with the freedom God gave you and no one can take away from you. Demand your rights and the rights of all Cubans. This is liberation.

How many signatures did you collect?

Fidel did not believe that there would be 1,000 people daring to sign. No one expected that we would receive so much brave support — because it took a spirit of bravery to sign. On May 10, 2002, we presented 11,020 signatures to the Cuban National Assembly. About a year later, after the wave of Varela Project arrests known as the ”Black Spring,” my wife, Ofelia, and I presented another 14,384 signatures. So, over 25,000 in the first round.

So many different kinds of people were involved: workers, farmers, intellectuals, doctors, students, some journalists — really all different professions.

The Christian Liberation Movement organized its members, and we were active in every province. Then, committees promoted the Varela Project; some people were members of CLM; some were simple citizens; some were active in other civic groups.

Since reactivating the project, I think we are doing well, but we want to protect people until we are ready to go back to the National Assembly, so I am not discussing numbers.

The important thing is that the Varela Project is a peaceful way to envision change, to achieve specific, meaningful, essential change in an attitude of reconciliation and tolerance.

What is the link between your project and Father Varela?

Father Varela was a Cuban priest, ordained at the cathedral in Havana in 1811. He got in trouble from the government when he petitioned the Spanish Crown for the independence of Latin America. He also actively opposed slavery in Cuba. Because of these ideas, he was sentenced to death and fled Cuba, eventually landing in the U.S., where he started the first Spanish-language newspaper and published many articles on human rights and religious freedom.

He dared to challenge authority through a petition, so his example inspired our own petition challenging the communist regime.

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington, D.C.

Tomorrow: Payá discusses the challenges he faced growing up Catholic in communist Cuba.