CubaBrief: Remembering James Lawson, the nonviolent architect of the Civil Rights Movement, and his relevance for Cubans today

James Lawson in Nashville, Tennessee. 2005 Photo by Joon Powell

Civil rights activist and nonviolence tactician Reverend James Lawson passed away at age 95 on June 9, 2024. Inspired by the example of Mohandas Gandhi, and the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott he traveled South to Nashville, Tennessee, where he began organizing and training activists in nonviolent direct action. He would spend over six decades showing generations of activists that there was a better way to achieve change, and that was through strategic nonviolence. Reverend Lawson recognized that: “Through non-violence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.”

Today in the Cuban diaspora we hear a seductive argument about bringing change to Cuba: either you prefer a violent bloody war that precipitates swift political change or you favor a slow and incremental transition launched by the dictatorship. It is a false choice because there is a third option nonviolent resistance through civil disobedience movements. Since 1976, Cubans on the island have opted for this third option:  using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a shared reference point.

The decision to embrace the UDHR is not a haphazard decision but one rooted deep in Cuba’s democratic history. It was Cuban diplomats in the 1940s who led the successful effort to draft and ratify this document at the United Nations. It presents a stark contrast to the violent history of the Cuban revolution in the 1950s.

Courageous Cubans have refused to be passive in the face of injustice, but instead actively confront it, and some of them have paid the ultimate price to defend the dignity and rights of all Cubans as did both Mohandas Gandhi, and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr..

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on June , 2023 made public its “Report on Admissibility and Merits No. 83/23 of Case 14,196” in which it held the State of Cuba responsible for July 22, 2012 deaths of Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero. Payá and his Christian Liberation Movement gathered over 30,000 signatures for the Varela Project petition, which called for human rights improvements, mobilizing tens of thousands of Cubans and gaining international attention. Payá was a Sakharov Laureate and twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Harold Cepero was the movement’s youth leader.

For decades, grassroots groups in Cuba have struggled for liberty, organizing Cubans to defend human rights and freedom using nonviolent means. The nationwide protests on July 11, 2021 were historic, but they did not arise from nowhere. There is much that we can learn from the teachings of Reverend James Lawson at this moment of crisis in Cuba’s freedom struggle.

Shaping Your Destiny | Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. | TEDxCrenshaw 2015

Notes from the Cuban Exile Quarter, June 10, 2024

R.I.P. Civil rights activist and nonviolence tactician James Morris Lawson Jr. September 22, 1928 – June 9, 2024

“Through non-violence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.”  ~ James Lawson, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

Reverend James Morris Lawson Jr. has passed, but his nonviolent legacy lives on, and will continue for a long time to come. Paul Valentine in The Washington Post described him as the “architect of civil rights nonviolence.

Reverend James Lawson, a contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s who trained the Nashville Student movement in nonviolent direct action was still engaged in forming activists well into his 90s and had a lifetime of experience to share.

Reverend Lawson’s  2010 keynote address at the Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict is an important talk to listen to, but thankfully there are many others.

This blog has followed his nonviolent struggle over the years with blog posts in 2010, 2012, 2016, 2020, and 2024.

Reverend James Lawson is missed, but not forgotten, and his nonviolent lessons will continue to train and form new generations.

NPR, June 10, 2024

The Rev. James Lawson, key architect of the Civil Rights Movement, dies at 95

The Rev. James Lawson was a staunch advocate for nonviolent resistance to racism, even in the face of brutality. A Methodist minister and student of Gandhi, Lawson mentored civil rights leaders, and was the tactician behind key desegregation campaigns in the South, including the Nashville Sit-Ins, the Freedom Rides, and the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called him the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence.

Lawson was 95 and died Sunday in Southern California, according to his son J. Morris Lawson III.

James Morris Lawson Jr. was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1928. His father and grandfather were Methodist ministers, but Lawson credited his mother, Philane, for instilling in him the power of nonviolent resistance.

In a 2018 interview with NPR, he described coming home from an altercation as an 8-year-old child.

“For the first time after running an errand on a spring day, I had just slapped a white child for calling me the N-word,” he said.

He said his mother asked him “what good that served?” and told her son to find a better way.

“So as a consequence of that conversation . . . I decided that I would never again fight with my fists to hurt somebody to beat up people on the playing field or in response to racist hatred.”

A student of Gandhi

As a student at Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, Lawson joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist group, and served time in prison for refusing to register for the military draft. In the 1950s, as a Methodist missionary in India, he studied the nonviolent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi.

Lawson said he found Gandhi’s teachings in line with the philosophy of his Christian faith, calling Jesus the “super athlete” of nonviolence.

“There’s no better weapon than that for bringing about personal and social change,” he said.

Back home at the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College in Ohio, he met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It was 1957, and King was fresh off the successful Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama which integrated public transportation. Lawson told NPR they immediately found common ground, and King encouraged him to come South.

“He said very quickly without reservation, ‘Come now. Don’t wait. We need you now,’” Lawson recalled.

Mentoring a generation of civil rights activists

The two began correspondence, and Lawson transferred to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. There he led Saturday workshops in nonviolent strategies, drawing students from nearby colleges. He devised a plan to desegregate downtown, charting a course of sit-ins, pickets, economic boycotts and other nonviolent direct actions.

The idea was to build on what King, Rosa Parks and others had achieved in Montgomery, and grow what Lawson considered to be a Black freedom movement with staying power.

“Was the Montgomery bus boycott an accident? Can it happen again? And if so, where? And what is it to become?” Lawson said of their thinking at the time. “King and [Ralph] Abernathy and others of us were persuaded it was not a fluke, but the time was now.”

Lawson travelled around the South, in coordination with King, to prepare activists for nonviolent action, giving them the tools and tactics needed to face violent pushback from white supremacists. The list of Lawson’s students reads like a who’s who of civil rights luminaries, among them — John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, and the Little Rock Nine, the Black students who integrated Central High School.

In a 1998 interview with NPR, Georgia Congressman John Lewis recalled his early embrace of the movement as a student in Nashville.

“When I first heard of Jim Lawson, this young black Methodist minister, preaching and teaching the philosophy of love and action, nonviolence, passive resistance, soul force — I knew this was for me,” Lewis said. “I knew this was the way out.”

Lawson was instrumental in the formation for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and drafted the organization’s statement of purpose. He was also active in the King-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE).

Fighting for workers’ rights in Memphis

He was expelled from Vanderbilt after being arrested at protests. By 1968, Lawson, then a pastor in Memphis, was mapping strategy for a sanitation workers’ strike with the slogan “I Am A Man.”

“When a public official orders a group of men to get back to work, and …. treats them as though they are not men, that’s a racist point of view,” he said at a news conference in 1968. “For at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man.”

Lawson later said he was trying to encourage the Black sanitation workers to claim their humanity.

“You’re a child of God. You are somebody,” he said. “Segregation tries to pretend that you’re not a human being; you’re not a man. But you have to fight that.”

It was Lawson who recruited Martin Luther King to march with the striking sanitation workers in Memphis, a fateful decision. The night before King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, he praised Rev. Lawson during what would become his final speech.

“I want to commend the preacher under the leadership of these noble men, James Lawson, one who has been in this struggle for many years,” King said from the pulpit of Mason Temple. “He’s been to jail for struggling. He’s been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggle, but he’s still going on fighting for the rights of his people.”

Fifty years later, Lawson remembered that evening in vivid detail

“For me, it was one of the zenith experiences of a whole movement,” he said. “There was a sense inside of warmth and unity. We’re engaged in a great struggle.”

Lawson decried the riots and violence that broke out after King’s killing. He said the assassination sapped both momentum for change, and support for nonviolent resistance.

“That has continued to grieve me — his death,” Lawson told NPR in 2018. “It happened in Memphis. Wherever it was going to happen, that still grieves me because of what it did to the nation. The loss.”

Lawson befriended the man who confessed to killing King, James Earl Ray. He ministered to Ray in prison, and presided at his funeral.

Social justice and peace activist

Lawson was the pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles for much of his latter career, and remained active well into his 90s, teaching nonviolent strategies to young activists, and engaging in campaigns for a number of social justice issues. He advocated for gay and workers’ rights, for instance, and spoke against war.

In 2020, he was a speaker at his former student John Lewis’ funeral.

“I maintain that many of us had no choice to do what we tried to do, primarily because at an early age we recognized the wrong under which we were forced to live,” he said. “And we swore to God that by God’s grace, we would do whatever God called us to do in order to put on the table of the nation’s agenda. This must end! Black Lives Matter!”

In 2022, Vanderbilt University, which expelled him in 1960, established the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements.

Lawson never gave up on the idea that the Black freedom movement would succeed. He called it the second major American revolutionary struggle.

“Ultimately the hatreds, the violence, the fears, the greed, the will to dominate and control, cannot prevail and will not prevail.”


Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, November 28, 2023

Can Cuba’s Democratic Legacy Be Recovered?

Communist Cuba underwent its fourth Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on November 15, 2023, at the UN Human Rights Council, a process Havana repeatedly subverted since 2009 by using front groups to drown out critical human rights reports by established human rights organizations.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez began the UPR session attacking Israel, went on to blame the Cuban dictatorship’s shortcomings on U.S. sanctions, and turned the review into a politicized circus.

Over 20 years, I’ve witnessed Cuban diplomats undermine international human rights standards, first at the United Nations Human Rights Commission and later at the UN Human Rights Council, making a mockery of human rights.

What the diplomats of Cuba’s communist dictatorship do in Geneva is horrible, but it pales compared to what they do to Cubans on the island.

Human rights defenders Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero were killed on July 22, 2012. On June 12, 2023, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights confirmed that the two Cuban pro-democracy leaders were assassinated by Castro regime operatives.

On July 11, 2021 when Cubans across the island protested in huge numbers called for freedom, and an end to dictatorship. Raul Castro’s hand picked president, Miguel Díaz-Canel went on national television and gave the “order of combat.” Regime agents opened fire on unarmed Cubans, the number killed remains unknown due to regime repression, and lack of transparency, but the video of 36 year old singer Diubis Laurencio Tejeda shot in the back by police, and dying in his friends’ arms is devastating.

Artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez are imprisoned in Cuba today for authoring a song about “homeland and life.” The dictatorship has severely restricted artistic freedoms, passed laws outlawing criticism of the regime on the internet, and passed an even more draconian penal code that expands the death penalty.

Human rights defenders Felix Navarro and his daughter Sayli Navarro, who sought to ascertain the plight of detained Cuban protesters, were themselves arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. There are over 1,000 prisoners of conscience in Cuba.

It was not always this way.

A democratic Cuba helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 75 years ago. Carlos Prío Socarrás, Cuba’s last democratic president, was elected in free and fair elections and took office on October 10, 1948. President Prío valued human rights, as seen by the activities of his diplomats during the United Nations’ founding.

Cuba, Panama, and Chile were the first three countries to submit full drafts of human rights charters. Latin American delegations, especially Mexico, Cuba, and Chile inserted language about the right to justice into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in what would become Article 8.

Cuban delegate Guy Pérez-Cisneros addressed the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948 proposing to vote for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Cuban Ambassador celebrated that it condemned racism and sexism, and addressed the importance of the rule of law:

“My delegation had the honor of inspiring the final text, which finds it essential that the rights of man be protected by the rule of law, so that man will not be compelled to exercise the extreme recourse of rebellion against tyranny and oppression.” 

Fulgencio Batista overthrew this democratic Cuba on March 10, 1952, Guy Pérez-Cisneros died of a stroke in 1953, and hopes for democratic restoration were dashed by the Castro brothers in 1959 when they imposed a communist dictatorship.

This shared democratic Cuban heritage that in 1948 made world history must be restored, and Cuban communism dumped on the garbage heap of history.

John Suarez is Executive Director of the Center for a Free Cuba.

Miami Herald, July 27, 2023

In the 1950s, Cubans soon learned the Moncada attack was nothing to celebrate | Opinion

By John Suarez

On July 26, at 5:00 a.m., Raúl Castro, age 92, Ramiro Valdés, 91, and Guillermo García Frías, 95, presided over the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the assault on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba. It was a violent act that led to the formation of the July 26th Movement and helped establish a dictatorship with Fidel Castro as its leader.

By contrast, 75 years ago, a delegation representing the Cuban Republic helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations. That republic provided an eight-hour work day; the right to strike; and university autonomy. The island enjoyed a large number of newspapers and radio stations with diverse political and ideological viewpoints. This year, Cuba is observing the Declaration’s 75th anniversary with a new draconian penal code and more beatings and arrests of dissidents.

After Fulgencio Batista’s coup ended Cuban democracy on March 10, 1952, Cubans fell for Fidel Castro, a charismatic young lawyer who promised to return constitutional order. Following the July 26 Moncada attack in 1953, the July 26th Movement’s urban terrorism killed Cubans throughout the rest of the decade. Raúl Castro plotted numerous aircraft hijackings. On Nov. 1, 1958, one such skyjacking killed 17 civilians when the plane crashed.

The United States slapped an arms embargo on the Batista dictatorship in March 1958, thanks to Castro’s July 26th Movement’s lobbying, and in December 1958, the U.S. ambassador in Havana pressed Batista to leave.

On Jan. 1, 1959, Fidel Castro rose to power and was quickly recognized by the United States. Raúl Castro remains there today.

What happened to the Cubans who, in good faith, used violence to effect democratic change?

Mario Chanes de Armas, for example, who survived the Moncada attack, served prison time with Fidel and, like Castro, received amnesty, went to Mexico to train and returned to Cuba on the Granma yacht to unseat Batista. Chanes could have taken any position in the new regime, but he chose to return to his brewery work. After watching Castro betray their movement, Chanes spoke out against communist influence. In 1961, Chanes was prosecuted as a counterrevolutionary and imprisoned for 30 years. He died of Alzheimer’s in 2007 in Miami, after being released in 1991 and going into exile in 1993.

He was not the only one to follow this trajectory; others took up arms again.

The men and women who battled Batista’s dictatorship, many of them in Castro’s July 26th Movement, hoped for the restoration of Cuba’s 1940 Constitution and its republic. This is what Fidel promised in his “History will Absolve Me” speech at his trial for the Moncada assault. They got a totalitarian dictatorship, instead. They then fought Castro for six years in a civil war with substantially higher casualties on both sides than during the struggle against Batista. About 400 Soviet advisers assisted Castro in crushing the resistance. The opposition ended up in exile, imprisoned or executed.

It was within the prison cells that Cuba’s human-rights movement was forged.

This movement understood the potential of nonviolent resistance, demonstrated by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The resistance practiced it in Castro’s prisons and saw it as a means of mobilizing Cubans. It became a national civic movement to challenge Castro’s monopoly, educate citizens, rebuild democratic culture, reclaim human rights, refuse to accept injustice and oppose repression. Members reveal the dictatorship’s own contradictions by insisting that it adhere to the democratic provisions in its own constitution.

The communist dictatorship refused to follow Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, believing that glasnost and perestroika would bring an end to its rule. They understood that nonviolent leaders would provide an alternative to their regime and had them murdered.

One high-profile case was the July 22, 2012 assassination of pro-democracy leaders Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero. Payá and his Christian Liberation Movement amassed over 30,000 signatures for the Varela Project petition calling for human rights reforms, organizing tens of thousands of Cubans and attracting international attention. Payá was a Sakharov Laureate, twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Fidel Castro became sick in 2006 and handed down power to his younger brother. The elder Castro died on Nov. 25, 2016. Raúl Castro and his son Alejandro continue to rule Cuba today through their hand-picked president Miguel Diaz-Canel.

Cuba’s prisons remain full of political prisoners — and the freedom struggle continues.

John Suarez is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights,  June 12, 2023

Inter-American Commission Holds Cuba Responsible For The Assassination Of Pro-Democracy Leaders Oswaldo Payá And Harold Cepero

In a landmark decision the Inter-American Commission held the Government of Cuba responsible for the assassination of pro-democracy leaders Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero.

June 12, 2023

[June 12, 2023] Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights celebrates a decision published today by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), holding the Cuban Government responsible for the assassination of pro-democracy leaders Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero who were killed after a car crash provoked by Cuban state agents on July 22, 2012. This unprecedented decision comes after 10 years of litigation before the IACHR by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights on behalf of the Payá and Cepero families.

In its decision, the IACHR considered that there were serious and sufficient indications to conclude that State agents directly participated in the deaths of Payá and Cepero. The IACHR also stated that Cuba was responsible for violations of the right to due process and judicial guarantees of Ángel Carromero, a Spanish citizen and witness, who was also present in the car crash that killed Payá and Cepero. These violations included cruel and inhumane acts, and coercion to obtain a false confession from Carromero who was forced to claim responsibility for the car crash. Similarly, the IACHR held the Cuban government responsible for the violation of the right to physical and mental integrity of the surviving victims, for inflicting unnecessary pain and anguish, as a result of the lack of an effective investigation, as well as the harassment they were subjected to after the deaths of their loved ones, forcing them into exile.

“On that July afternoon, upon receiving the tragic news, my heart immediately acknowledged the truth that this Commission today reaffirms: the Castros finally carried out their murderous threats. Yet, they failed to kill Oswaldo’s legacy. My husband’s lessons compel us to envision the future with optimism and realize that we possess the power to overcome our circumstances. The path towards liberation is already charted for Cuba – the Path of the People,” said Ofelia Acevedo, Payá’s widow.

“Today’s decision confirms to the world what we have known all along – that my father, Oswaldo Payá, and Harold Cepero were executed by State agents on orders of the Castros. We are now a step closer to justice, holding the Cuban Regime accountable for its atrocious acts.” Rosa María Payá, Payá’s daughter and founder of Cuba Decide, added. “This is not just a victory for our families, but for all the victims of the dictatorship and all Cubans who keep fighting for democracy and freedom.”

On July 22, 2012, Oswaldo José Payá Sardiñas, a renowned Cuban dissident and human rights leader, was killed by Cuban state agents near Bayamo, Cuba. Harold Cepero, a young activist who was traveling with him, died in the hospital soon afterwards. Both were prominent figures in the Christian Liberation Movement, which Payá had founded in the late 1980s to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba. The car’s two other occupants, Ángel Carromero Barrios from Spain and Jens Aron Modig from Sweden, survived with minor injuries. According to Carromero, who was driving that day, official state vehicles had been following them for hours when they were suddenly hit from behind. Cuban authorities detained, drugged and threatened Carromero, ultimately forcing him to publicly confirm the official narrative that he had lost control and hit a tree. The investigation and subsequent trial for the killings of Payá and Cepero were carried out with complete disregard to due process guarantees. The prosecution ignored complaints from the Payá family, based on findings they had personally obtained — that government officials had caused the car crash, killing Payá and Cepero. These facts were never made part of the investigation, and the family never had access to the formal autopsy of Payá and Cepero, nor to a transparent and efficient investigation into their deaths.

Left with no possibility of legal recourse in Cuba, Payá and Cepero’s family members turned to the IACHR. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights filed an initial petition on their behalf in 2013.

“Today is an extraordinary day more than ten years in the making,” Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights said. “It has been our honor to represent the Payá and Cepero families in their pursuit of justice and accountability, and it is my sincere hope that this long-awaited verdict brings them some degree of peace and healing.”

Several members of the U.S. Senate also expressed their support for the IACHR decision.

“Thanks to today’s decision by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, the Cuban regime has been unequivocally exposed for what it truly is: a murderous dictatorship. After a decade of being fed distortions and lies by the Cuban regime, the world finally knows that Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero were assassinated by regime officials for their pro-democracy work. It is incumbent upon the United States and international community to rally around the IACHR’s decision and demand not only justice and accountability for Payá and Cepero’s murders, but an end to the ongoing human rights atrocities facing the Cuban people.” said Senator Robert Menendez.

Senator Ted Cruz added that the “The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IACHR) finding will further highlight the Cuban regime’s responsibility for the deaths of Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero. Payá bravely fought for democracy with unrelenting passion and dedication, and in the end paid the ultimate price for standing up to the corrupt Castro regime. Communism is an evil ideology and this finding is a reminder that the crimes of Communist regimes will never be forgotten.”

“At last we have a clear verdict on what was suspected all along. After years of petty and cowardly harassment of Cuban patriot and democracy activist Owaldo Paya, responsibility for his tragic death and that of his colleague Harold Cepero rests with the Cuban dictatorship,” said Senator Dick Durbin. “The culpability for Paya’s death also speaks to the many Cubans who have been and continue to be jailed, harassed, or tortured for simply demanding even a semblance of political or economic freedom. It is long overdue for the Cuban government to honor Paya’s dream for a more open society and to stop blaming the human suffering of the Cuban people on anyone but its own cruel ineptitude, mismanagement, and self-enrichment.” he added.

Miami Herald, November 30, 2021

Nonviolent resistance has a history of success in combating repression in Cuba | Opinion

By Regis Iglesias Ramírez and John Suarez

Grassroots movements in Cuba have fought for liberty for decades, mobilizing Cubans to defend human rights and freedom. The July 11 nationwide protests marked a historic moment, but they did not arise from nowhere.

In November 2020, hundreds of artists mobilized outside of the Ministry of Culture in a 15-day effort to free political prisoner Denis Solís González. They demanded both his release and greater artistic freedoms.

The San Isidro Movement (MSI), an artists collective formed in 2018 to nonviolently defend artistic freedom, challenged regime officials to free their unjustly jailed compatriot. Solís González was charged with contempt for protesting an illegal search of his home by a policeman, whom he had called a coward.

Rather than accede to MSI’s demands, officials repeatedly and violently escalated repression over 15 days, but they were met with nonviolent responses that inspired hundreds of artists and intellectuals to gather outside the Ministry of Culture, bringing officials to the negotiating table for dialogue.

The San Isidro Movement’s exercise in nonviolent power led to the formation of a new movement, 27N, and increased civic resistance. The pattern continued through 2021, reaching millions of Cubans across the island with the movement’s art and music — in particular the song, “Patria y Vida.” The rapper Maykel Castillo Perez (Osorbo), co-author of the song and also a member of MSI, is currently in prison and severely ill.

This is not the first time nonviolent tactics have been carried out successfully in Cuba. The Cuban Committee for Human Rights, founded in 1976, systematically documented human-rights violations, information smuggled out of Cuba to international human rights organizations, which led to the installation of a special rapporteur focused on Cuba’s human-rights situation and the Castro regime’s condemnation over a 15-year period beginning in 1991. Havana’s record was carefully scrutinized, and it was held accountable annually until 2006.

The Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), founded in 1988 to work for Cuba’s democratization, is best known for the Varela Project, a petition signed by 11,020 Cubans in May 2002 calling on the regime to guarantee international human-rights norms in law. Fidel Castro changed his constitution to prevent it from being amended that same year.

The regime responded with violence, not so much because of the number of signatures presented to the National Assembly, but because more than 120 Citizens’ Committees had been created throughout the country in the process and imprisoned most of their leaders. Despite this repression, MCL turned in an additional 14,384 signatures in October 2003.

Castro expected the March 2003 crackdown, dubbed the “Black Cuban Spring,” to be the end of the opposition. Instead, it sparked the emergence of a new movement, the Ladies in White, led by the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the men jailed. For eight years, these women lobbied, protested and marched for their loved ones’ freedom. They were successful, and the last of the men were released from prison in 2011, a nonviolent victory over the dictatorship. The Ladies in White continue to the present day, demanding human rights be respected in Cuba.

The price of nonviolent defiance has been high: long prison terms, exile, deportations and extrajudicial killings. Tempted by the understanding that Cubans are exerting power through nonviolent action, some voices have emerged advocating a turn to violence in the belief that it would expedite a democratic transition.

Strategic studies have demonstrated that the more brutal the regime, the less effective and successful violent movements are. Counterintuitively, nonviolent movements have been more successful in overthrowing brutal dictators and transitioning to lasting democracies.

The Castro dictatorship, with decades of experience in terrorism, torture and genocide around the world, is an expert in war, as demonstrated in the 1960s when it efficiently and ruthlessly crushed a violent opposition in Cuba with the aid of Soviet advisors to consolidate power.

Nonviolent resistance is better able to mobilize citizens to demand change and obtain global solidarity and sanctions, creating the political, diplomatic and economic isolation of the regime and punishing the individuals and entities that violate Cubans’ rights.

Regis Iglesias Ramírez is the spokesperson for the Movimiento Cristiano Liberación.

John Suarez is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.