The Varela Project (Proyecto Varela in Spanish) is a project that was started in 1998 by Oswaldo Payá of the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) and named after Felix Varela, a Cuban religious leader.
Many members were imprisoned during the Black Spring in 2003.
The Varela Project citizens' initiativeEdit
The purpose of the Varela Project was to circulate a proposal of law advocating for democratic political reforms within Cuba, such as the establishment of freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free elections, freedom of religion, freedom to start private businesses, and amnesty for political prisoners.
The Varela Project was announced as relying on Article #88(g) of the Cuban Constitution Text of 1976, as amended in 1992, which allows citizens to propose laws if 10,000 who are entitled to vote support the proposal with a notarized affidavit that the Varela Project's promoters failed to bring together with the project itself. The simple collection, in any number, of names, national identification numbers, addresses, and signatures does not support any proposal of law in accord with the Cuban Constitution and its complementary legislation, which in this case is the Rules of the National Assembly (1996).
The organization reported having collected 11,020 signatures, but neither the Constitution nor any complementary law authorizes a proposal of law by citizens without proving their right to vote. Article 88 of the Constitution does not refer to any signature, and the Article 64 of the Rules of the National Assembly clearly request as quantum of proof a notarized affidavit. Thus, the legal requisite for consideration by Cuban National Assembly is not a number at all, but the legal status of voter. The Cuban National Assembly's Constitution and Legal Affairs Committee did not suspend consideration of the Varela Project citizens' initiative, but responded to it with an expert opinion, dated on November 1, 2002, and forwarded to the promoters by courier on November 18 and by certified mail on November 26. This expert opinion dismissed the Varela Project because of formal and substantial grounds. Formally, the Varela Project did not prove the voter status of those who had provided their names, national identification numbers, addresses, and signatures. Also it wasn't presented as a proposal of law, but as a mix of allegations regarding legal issues that should be articulate as separate laws. Moreover, the Varela Project mixed up referendum and popular consultation, which are two different constitutional issues. The Cuban regime did not respond to the Varela Project with its own counter initiative, providing that the Cuban Constitution be amended to make permanent the socialist nature of the Cuban state. Such was the response to the U.S. President's speeches on May 20, 2002, and the foreign media broke the news that the huge mobilization — a typical resource of the Cuban regime against the U.S. — for irrevocable socialism was the response to the Varela Project. In fact, the response was limited since the very beginning to the expert opinion by the aforementioned Constitution and Legal Affairs Committee. A BBC reporter noted that many Cubans said they felt pressured into signing the government's petition. According to the United States State Department, "activists reported increased harassment by State Security agents. Authorities arrested and detained Varela activists, confiscated signatures, fined and threatened activists and signers, and forced signers to rescind signatures. State Security impersonated canvassing volunteers and increasingly infiltrated the ranks of activists. In May and June, Oswaldo Paya reported State Security agents visited and pressured more than 50 Varela Project signatories to retract their signatures and denounce the Varela Project activists who had collected their signatures."
Support for Varela ProjectEdit
The Varela Project movement enjoyed broad based support among expatriate Cuban-Americans and the United States Government. Also, some of the Varela Project leaders were accused by the Cuban government of accepting foreign political support from James Cason of the United States State Department for political purposes, in contravention of Law 88. The dissidents, however, rejected the charges. In March 2003, the Cuban government arrested approximately 75 dissenters, who were tried and convicted of accepting funds from foreign sources for political purposes, and approximately one half of these arrested persons were associated with the Varela Project movement. This was met with widespread criticism internationally, and was perceived as a crackdown. Although the project was officially legally rejected on November 2002, the same Varela Project was brought again to the National Assembly on October 2004. Its promoters claimed that the National Assembly had not responded to the project. The Varela Project was again re-launched in Madrid on October 2008.
Cuban government's response to the Varela ProjectEdit
The official response to the Varela Project was a dismissal by both formal and substantial grounds. The latter was argued in terms of unconstitutionality. There is no clue in the response to consider that the aspects of the Varela Project regarding the freedom to start a private business were seen by the Cuban government as the real purpose of the project. Although the Cuban government has always claimed that the fundamental freedoms are already guaranteed to the Cuban people, its official respond to the Varela Project does not provide any clue either to affirm the such freedoms were included in the project's stated goals to divert attention from the privatization aspect of the project. The response simply dismissed the entire project as a disorderly way to amend the Cuban Constitution, which is not possible through mere proposal of laws.
Statement of the Foreign MinisterEdit
The Foreign Minister of the Republic of Cuba, Felipe Pérez Roque stated on April 9, 2003, that "The Varela Project is part of a strategy of subversion against Cuba that has been conceived, financed, and directed from abroad with the active participation of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. It is part of the same subversive design and has no basis whatsoever in Cuban law. It is a crude manipulation of Cuba’s laws and Constitution." and "The U.S. Interests Section’s diplomatic pouch is being increasingly used to bring funds and the means for the exercise of counterrevolutionary acts in Cuba to groups created and funded by the U.S. government. To sum up, we have a situation where there has been an increase in subversive actions, disrespect for Cuban laws, and open defiance of Cuba’s legal institutions, which all diplomatic representations should respect in their work in our country."
Statement of the Cuban Ministry of JusticeEdit
"On April 3, 4, 5 and 7, counterrevolutionaries recently detained for their known participation in mercenary activities and other acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state appeared in the Crimes against State Security courtrooms linked to the country’s provincial courts in a public hearing."
"Their trials were carried out according to proceedings laid down in Article 479 of the Criminal Proceedings Act, with full respect for the basic guarantees and rights of the accused."
"The sentences imposed by the Courts implied prisoner terms ranging from six to 28 years and all the defendants were duly instructed of the right to appeal their sentences before the People’s Supreme Court."
Statement regarding actions of James CasonEdit
Cuba accused the head of the US Interests section in Havana (now US Embassy in Havana), James Cason. of giving money, gifts and support to dissidents in Cuba, associated with the Varela Project, and that: "For these reasons, a few dozen persons directly linked to the conspiratorial activities headed by James Cason have been arrested by the relevant authorities and will be brought to trial."
Reports of persecution of March 2003 arresteesEdit
In March 2003, Cuba arrested 75 human rights activists, including 25 members of the Varela Project, on a variety of charges; all were sentenced to prison in trials within twenty days of their arrest.
Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia, a Varela Project leader and one of the 75 activists arrested, reported serving 45 days in a punishment cell with no light or available water for protesting the suspension of correspondence and the delivery of food and medical supplies from his family. He did not receive food or water during the first 3 days of his confinement and slept on a cement floor. Authorities confiscated his Bible and prohibited any contact with other prisoners.
Fabio Prieto Llorente, one of the 75 activists, reported he was held in a small cell with leaky walls and a cement slab for a bed. The cell was infested with rats, frogs, and insects.
Yarai Reyes, wife of Normando Hernandez Gonzalez, another of the 75 activists, reported that prison authorities incited common prisoners to beat her husband.
Barbara Rojo Arias, wife of Omar Ruiz Hernandez, an independent journalist and another the arrested activists, reported that her husband was denied access to required medications for his heart condition and stomach problems.
Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a Varela Project political prisoner released in 2004, reported that prison officials regularly denied him adequate medical treatment during his 20-month incarceration.
Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, founder of the Lawton Center and an advocate of the non-violent philosophy espoused by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., was forced to live on handouts from fellow prisoners because the prison did not permit his wife to bring in the meager rations of food and medicine allowed for other prisoners.
External commentary on the Varela ProjectEdit
British Broadcasting CorporationEdit
The organization reported having collected more than the requisite number of signatures but was voted down by the government; the government also responded with its own initiative. This initiative, for which the government claimed 99% voter approval, provided the constitution be amended to make permanent the socialist nature of Cuba's government. Fidel Castro said, "The revolutionary process of socialism cannot be reversed" and that "Cuba will never return to capitalism". A BBC reporter noted that many Cubans said they felt pressured into signing the government's petition.
United States State Department statementsEdit
According to the United States State Department, "activists reported increased harassment by State Security agents. Authorities arrested and detained Varela activists, confiscated signatures, fined and threatened activists and signers, and forced signers to rescind signatures. State Security impersonated canvassing volunteers and increasingly infiltrated the ranks of activists. In May and June, Oswaldo Paya reported State Security agents visited and pressured more than 50 Varela Project signatories to retract their signatures and denounce the Varela Project activists who had collected their signatures."
Per the State Department, the Cuban Penal Code includes the concept of "dangerousness," defined as the "special proclivity of a person to commit crimes, demonstrated by his conduct in manifest contradiction of socialist norms." If the police decide that a person exhibits signs of dangerousness, they may bring the offender before a court or subject him to therapy or political reeducation. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, this provision amounted to a subjective criterion used by the Government to justify violations of individual freedoms and due process for persons whose sole crime was to hold a view different from the official view.
Oswaldo Payá, who had been a long-time opponent of the Cuban government, died in a car accident under controversial circumstances in July 2012, with family members claiming the government was responsible. Authorities also cracked down incarcerating 75 political prisoners with terms from 6 to 28 years, after being charged and convicted of "acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the State." Many of those arrested had no knowledge of the charges against them or access to attorneys until moments before a one-day trial, which was by a judge subordinate to the Communist Party. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern regarding the arrests and summary trials, as did many governments, international organizations, and public
The Varela Project was lauded by some outside observers such as former US President Jimmy Carter, in a May 2002 speech in Havana, Cuba, and the European Union, which awarded Payá the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. They did not have a clue about the applicable Cuban Law. Other observers are skeptical: Attempts to bring about democratic change in Cuba with the aid of US financing have long been criticized by pundits as "Dead on Arrival" when the initiatives reach Cuba, as there is widespread popular opposition in Cuba to US intervention in Cuban politics (as such, dissidents receiving money from US sources, especially from the CIA, are immediately discredited in Cuban politics). 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry called the initiative and its results "counterproductive".
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