CubaBrief: Project Varela at 22. Monument to Oswaldo Payá inaugurated in Hialeah
Twenty two years ago 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.

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.

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.

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.”

In July and August of 2002, the president and vice-president of the Directorio Democratico Cubano Javier de Cespedes, and Lorenzo de Toro III traveled to Cuba. They separately visited Oswaldo Payá to sign the Varela Project and demonstrate the unity and solidarity between the Cuban exile and the democratic opposition in the island.

Yet the dictatorship’s response to the nonviolent citizen’s initiative, and to President Carter’s request was to first coerce Cubans into signing another petition declaring the Constitution unchangeable and quickly passed it through the rubber stamp legislature without debating the Varela Project, which according to the Cuban law drafted by the dictatorship meant that it should have been debated by the National Assembly.

Less than a year later beginning on March 18, 2003 the Black Cuban Spring would begin with a massive crackdown on Cuba’s civil society with many of the organizers of Project Varela, imprisoned and summarily sentenced up to 28 years in prison. The 75 activists who had been imprisoned with long prison sentences became known as the “group of the 75.” During the Black Cuban Spring Antonio Diaz Sanchez was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and Regis Iglesias Ramirez was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Havana 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. Furthermore, the 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, Regis Iglesias’s following statement was published by the Christian Liberation Movement.

“So far the only response to the more than 35,000 citizens who have supported this initiative has been persecution, kidnapping, prison, exile and murder. But until political pluralism and freedom of information are recognized and guaranteed, until economic freedoms are recognized for Cubans, an amnesty is not decreed, a new electoral law is not approved where citizens can be proposed by the people. and elections are not held in the midst of an environment of respect for popular sovereignty, diversity of opinions and we can freely choose the government that represents Cubans, we will not renounce to maintain our civic demand, remembering that the Cuban regime is a gangster regime that does not respect the rights of citizens or the sovereignty of Cubans.”

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas was murdered on July 22, 2012 together with Harold Cepero, a youth leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, in a car “accident” that had all the hallmarks of a state security operation copied after the East German Stasi, who trained intelligence operatives in the Castro regime.
Twenty two years after the Varela Project, and 12 years after the extrajudicial killings of Oswaldo and Harold by agents of the Cuba dictatorship, the most Cuban city in the United States, Hialeah, inaugurated a monument to Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas.
From the archives

The Miami Herald. Wed, Aug. 21, 2002

Miamian entered Cuba to sign petition
From Herald wire services. Posted on Wed, Aug. 21, 2002

A Cuban anti-Castro activist disclosed on Tuesday that he traveled to Cuba three weeks ago to sign a petition known as the Varela Project, which asks for changes in the Cuban Constitution.

Javier de Céspedes, president of the Hialeah-based Cuban Democratic Directorate, said he used his Mexican passport to enter the island undetected. He was born in Mexico in 1965 to Cuban parents and now is a U.S. citizen.

De Céspedes said he signed the petition at the home of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, the project’s main sponsor. The Miamian said he also signed a document called Accord for Democracy while visiting the Capitol building in Havana.

He described the accord as a set of guidelines for a transition to democracy in Cuba, “endorsed by the Cuban opposition both inside and outside the island.”

At a press conference in Miami on Tuesday, De Céspedes said he went to the island “to exercise the right of being a child of Cuba.”

”We neither provoked [the authorities] nor asked for their permission,” he said.

The Varela Project is named after a 19th century Cuban priest active in Cuba’s quest for independence from Spain.

On May 10, Payá and other dissident leaders presented a petition with 11,020 signatures to the country’s National Assembly. The document calls for an island-wide referendum that, if approved by voters, would grant amnesty to political prisoners and give Cubans freedom of expression and association, free enterprise, electoral reform and elections within one year.

The Assembly has not officially responded to the petition, and Payá is collecting more signatures to press for a prompt response.