Analysis: Understanding Payá and his Varela Project

By José Manuel Pallí, Esq.

The sudden and tragic death of Osvaldo Payá Sardiñas a month ago resulted in an even more sudden conversion of many of my Miami neighbors into fervent followers of this Cuban dissident who embodied what was arguably the most sensible and coherent challenge to the Castro clique over the half a century they have been ruling the island.

And, this being Miami, the confusion around what Payá stood for seems even greater today than it was in his lifetime. This is probably due to the fact that some of my neighbors, specially those who have to run for office every now and then, are, unsurprisingly, more eager to “use” Payá’s death for their own personal purposes than to build on his legacy, which could do wonders for the future of Cuba.

I do not pretend to act as a “boletero” on behalf of Osvaldo Payá, filling in his absentee ballot — Payá’s shoes are hard to fill for any of his countrymen I am aware of, whether in Cuba or in Miami — but just to try to shed some light on what I understand were his goals and beliefs, specially on how those goals and beliefs meshed into Cuba’s present legal system.

This past May marked the 10th anniversary of the submission of Payá’s Proyecto Varela to Cuba’s legislature, or Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular, on May 10, 2002. I happened to be in Havana at that time — a week before President Carter visited Cuba — and, as far as I could tell, very few people in the island were then aware of Payá’s ideas, or those of his Christian Liberation Movement (Movimiento Cristiano de Liberación), or had even heard of Osvalda Payá. Still, once you carefully explained to those same Cubans in the dark the aims Payá’s document pursued, most of them, even those who sympathized with the Cuban government, could see that it made a lot of sense.

The Proyecto Varela, originally signed by 11,020 Cuban citizens in the island, sought a referendum within the constraints of Cuba’s own constitutional framework — as laid out in article 88 (g) of the 1976 Cuban Constitution then in effect — whereby the signatories invited their fellow citizens to reclaim a number of rights established by precisely that constitutional framework. It was essentially a way for the Cuban citizen to reclaim his/her rights to those very rights the Cuban Constitution clearly granted. Payá’s Christian Liberation Movement managed to collect 14,000 additional signatures in the years that followed, this despite the Cuban government’s persecution of the signature gatherers, many of them incarcerated in a 2003 round up.

Payá was not pursuing a change “of” government in Cuba, but rather a change “in” government. In that sense, the Proyecto Varela was meant to be a starting point, a wake-up call for the participation of all Cubans in the protection and enhancement of those rights their government presumably already recognized to them, a means to open up spaces for the free and responsible participation of Cuban citizens in the political and economic realms of the society they lived in.  An invitation to all Cuban citizens, without exclusion, to feel entitled to defend and debate their individual opinions, diverse as they might be, on matters that affect their lives, both in the private and the public sphere.

The gist of the Proyecto Varela is found in the freedom it seeks to enshrine, the freedom every citizen has under Cuba’s own Constitution to speak out, to participate in the selection of the solutions to Cuba’s problems, thus strengthening, even if gradually, the vitality of Cuba’s society as a whole.

The Cuban government ignored the Varela Project, at least at an official or public level. It even amended the Cuban Constitution to, among other things, declare Cuba’s socialism immutable. But it could be argued that it was Osvaldo Payá, through his tireless and thankless dedication in pursuit of freedom, consultation, dialogue and reconciliation among Cubans, who forced the Cuban government to seek the kind of reforms to Cuba’s laws we have seen lately, even if they fall way short of Payá’s goals and expectations. Feedback from the Cuban people now can occasionally be found behind some of these ongoing changes.

The basic principles Payá and his Movimiento Cristiano de Liberaciòn sponsored — and which the nature of the Varela Project itself and the referendum it called for opened up to debate and, eventually, competition with others — were those of political freedom, social justice, individual and collective well being and, last but far from least, human solidarity. And the path Payá and his followers saw as leading to their effective realization in Cuba’s society was cemented in two very strong pillars: the emphasis on non-violence and the imperative of love as an equivalent to oxygen, pillars that would have to be firmly in place if the process Payá envisioned was ever to succeed.

The Proyecto Varela also touched on the need to render justice to those Cubans who are imprisoned for exercising their right to express political opinions that the Cuban government found questionable. Implicitly, and in my very personal and humble interpretation from reading Payá’s document, this justice must be made extensive to those who, in the past, suffered similar — and even harsher — sanctions for their opposition or dissent.

Osvaldo Payá however, saw justice as the goal of forgiveness, I believe. And even if the forgiveness Payá pursued did not mean indulgence towards evil or injury, or disowning the objective requirements of justice (compensation and truce), my impression is that he, because he was such a good and solid Christian, believed that the love forgiveness implies is essential for man to affirm himself as man in the act of rendering justice to his fellow man.

Contrarians will always find fault on anything and anyone who smacks of acquiescence or tolerance (the favorite word for this, among Cuban old-timers in Miami, is ‘contemporizar’, to temporize or be compliant) towards the status quo in the island. But just as he did not fear those who persecuted him in Cuba (and openly expressed his love for them), Payá did not mind or resent those who denied him and his work in exile (and they were many, though most of them seem to have been muted by his untimely death).

There was no room in Payá’s heart or mind for any thoughts or feelings like those expressed by Cubans who want to see another Libya or Syria in Cuba. The strength of Payá’s vision rested on his willingness to defy the Cuban government by questioning its faithfulness towards its own laws and its own people.

So if you happen to be one of those who believe that there is no legal system in Cuba to speak of — even to tinker with — please refrain from using Osvaldo Payá as cover for your own personal (and obviously different) views and interests.

José Manuel Pallí is a Cuban-born member of the Florida Bar, originally trained as a lawyer in Argentina. He is president of Miami-based World Wide Title

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