Activist in Exile Cites Grass-roots Push for Freedom
One hundred days after Fidel Castro’s imprisonment of 78 human rights defenders in Cuba, the situation continues to be critical—but hope is in the air.
This is because Cubans had already made moves for a political liberation. One sign is the Varela Plan, an initiative that in May 2002 handed in 11,020 signatures of Cubans to the National Assembly of Popular Power.
The signatures were a show of support for holding a referendum on a new electoral law. The Cuban government has ignored the request. The Varela Plan also calls for the right of freedom of expression and association, amnesty for political prisoners, and the right of Cubans to establish businesses.
The driving force behind the Varela Plan is the Christian Liberation Movement. CLM was founded by Oswaldo Paya Sardinas, a Catholic layman and recipient of the European Parliament’s 2002 Sakharov Award for Human Rights.
Almost half of those recently imprisoned belong to the CLM. They were sentenced (some up to 28 years) for offenses described in the Law of Protection of the National Independence and the Economy of Cuba—known as the Gag Law. About the same time, a firing squad executed three men accused of trying to hijack a ferry to the United States.
In this interview with ZENIT, Carlos Paya, younger brother of the CLM’s founder, explains the current situation in Cuba. Carlos Paya represents the CLM and the Varela Plan in Europe. He has lived in exile in Madrid for the past 17 years.
Q: Is the Movement that arose from the Varela Plan at the root of the latest wave of repression?
Paya: There are people in prison who are not connected to the Varela Plan. However, without a doubt the great fear of the regime is to see that there are individuals who are on the move, who cannot be controlled, who are coming out into the light, who are giving their names, even if they are only 11,020.
It must be understood that it is not a project that is centered in one area of Cuba, in a city. It is a project extended evenly throughout the country, where there are representative committees that have been forming gradually. Everyone knows who belongs to the representative committees, and people can approach their members and to see that there is a ray of light.
Nevertheless, at present the panic is total. The movement has been beheaded, but the seed has been sown.
In a free country, 1,000 or 10,000 signatures means nothing. But in Cuba, those small gestures mean a lot. Moreover, others see that some do not hide that they are Catholics—that some others have signed. These are points of light. If we put them on a map, we see that the island is beginning to be illuminated.
Q: The CLM is not confessional, but it has Christian roots. In four decades, has the Communist regime not succeeded in de-Christianizing the island?
Paya: It has not succeeded. Faith is a gift and there are people in Cuba who receive that gift. Despite the abuses, the religious spirit is maintained in Cuba, but in a state where simulation is the formula to survive; it cannot be quantified. However, that religious seed exists.
Q: What steps will the CLM and the Varela Plan take, after being beheaded?
Paya: They are beheaded, but the seed will give fruit again. The times are very difficult, but we also see that the government is now on the defensive. These responses are symbols of the final lashes, although they could last for many years.
The group will recover because it is purely Cuban. It receives moral and political support from abroad, but it is a group gestated within Cuba, with Cuban criteria, which neither shows contempt for nor excludes the exiled.
Moreover, it is the first time that a plan of opposition is presented, absolutely protected by current Cuban legislation. As we say, “it goes from the law to the law.” It might be debatable to be protected by a law that from the beginning has been considered unjust, but it has been possible, and the results are there. Without the Varela Plan, we would not have had this inordinate response from the regime.
The next step is to continue collecting signatures. We are going to continue to sow civic and democratic concepts, within the possibilities to be followed on the street as a movement.
The Varela Plan will continue. It has failed because of the blow it has suffered but, though respecting the people who are tortured and imprisoned, deep down that represents a triumph, because, suffice it to see the response that the regime has given the Varela Plan to prove its importance.
We will continue—for the release of the prisoners—to work in the field, with the campaign of solidarity with the Cuban prisoners which is under way, and with the constant denunciation of injustice that has been committed against these democrats—they are not dissidents, because there is no democracy in Cuba.
Q: The 2003 Report on Religious Liberty, presented recently in Rome and prepared by Aid to the Church in Need, highlights the critical situation in Cuba. How do the Church and Catholics live each day?
Paya: The Church was told from the beginning: “You, stay inside the church premises. You cannot compete with us; you cannot take anything away from us; we control the whole society. All that you are allowed to do is to stay within the church premises.” Therefore, it implies no evangelization. It is given some small concessions, such as the presence of some religious orders, which have some freedom of movement or a minimal press, but always under discrimination.
Since my childhood, I had to hide the cross. When I was 5 years old, I already knew what it meant to hide the fact that I was receiving a religious formation because from the beginning it was rejected. This situation continues in Cuba.
Q: Did the Pope’s visit in 1998 bring any change to the island?
Paya: Only gestures have taken place that are translated minimally; concessions of religious liberty, entry of priests, and some material concessions, but always at the expense of the fury of the “Supreme Chief.” They are like alms.
The Pope’s visit, in fact, has not resulted in evident changes. But the Holy Father’s visit to a country like Cuba has sown the spirit of freedom because it is what he transmits, and not just among the faithful, but also among other people who have seen that there is someone who has filled Revolution Square who is not Fidel Castro.