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2/25/03 - CUBAN CRACKDOWN ON DISSENT - 2003-02-25

A crackdown is underway in Cuba against supporters of the Varela Project. In recent days, dozens of Cubans have been harassed, jailed, and expelled from jobs and universities. Their only crime is that they supported a national referendum on whether Cubans should have fundamental political and economic freedoms.

Varela Project organizers tried to invoke a provision in Cuba's 1976 constitution that permits a referendum if ten-thousand petition signatures are collected. Despite harassment, the Varela Project collected over eleven-thousand signatures and presented them to the national assembly, Cuba's rubber-stamp parliament. But the Communist government of Fidel Castro refused to respond.

On February 18th, a provincial court sentenced two Varela Project workers to eighteen months in prison on the trumped-up charge of “disrespecting authorities.” Jesús Mustafá Felipe (hay-zoos moos-ta-FAH fell-EE-pay) and Robert Montero (ro-BARE mon-TARE-o) are members of the Christian Liberation Movement. The founder of that group is Oswaldo Paya (os-VAHL-doe PYE-ah), a top organizer of the Varela Project.

Mustafa and Montero were frequently harassed for publicly displaying pro-human rights posters. Mustafa had earlier been subjected to a massive "act of repudiation" staged by regime thugs on January 11th. Two-hundred people were trucked in to surround his home and shower it with paint and feces.

On the same day that Felipe and Montero were tried, at least nineteen other members of the Varela organization were detained, including some who tried to attend the trial. In the words of U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fisk, "The Cuban government arrest of two individuals working on Project Varela and its continued harassment of dozens of others highlight its fear of the project. [The government's] reaction to a simple call to reform signed by. . .thousands of Cuban citizens is to increase repression."

Despite severe repression, the struggle for freedom in Cuba is being waged by courageous men and women like Mustafa and Montero. The United States is determined to give them hope in their struggle against Castro's totalitarian system. As President George W. Bush said, "the goal of our policy towards Cuba. . .is freedom for Cuba's people. Full normalization of relations with Cuba. . .will only be possible when Cuba has a new government that is fully democratic; when the rule of law is respected; and when the human rights of all Cubans are protected."