Monday, July 24, 2017

Christian Liberation Movement: From Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas to Eduardo Cardet Concepción

Repression against the Christian Liberation Movement remains a constant
Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Eduardo Cardet Concepción
 On July 22, 2017 across the world activists and friends of freedom paid homage to Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante five years after they were cruelly taken.  The Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) did not end with the untimely and suspicious deaths of Oswaldo and Harold. Following the death of MCL national coordinator Oswaldo Payá members of the organization elected Eduardo Cardet Concepción to lead in 2014.  Cardet was also elected vice president of the Christian Democrat Organization of America (ODCA). Following the death of Fidel Castro on November 25, 2016 Eduardo Cardet spoke critically of Fidel Castro and his legacy in Cuba while outside of the country to international media saying in part "Castro was a very controversial man, very much hated and rejected by our people."

 As the new national coordinator of the Christian Liberation Movement Eduardo Cardet continued the work of MCL promoting the citizen campaign Project Varela and the proposal to reform the electoral law "One Cuban, one vote" that is being turned into members of the National Assembly of Popular Power.

State Security visited his wife and threatened her that Eduardo Cardet would be sentenced to a long prison term. Despite that Cardet returned to Cuba on November 30, 2016 and was beaten up and arrested in front of his family. In March of 2017 Eduardo Cardet was sentenced to 3 years in prison and Amnesty International has recognized him as a prisoner of conscience.

On April 7, 2017 the Peace and Cooperation Foundation (Fundación Paz y Cooperación) awarded the Freedom of Conscience Annual Prize to Eduardo Cardet.  This prize is seen as not only supporting Eduardo Cardet but all Cuban prisoners of conscience recognized by Amnesty International. The NGO is known for its support of nonviolence and the promotion of a culture for peace.

Eduardo Cardet remains unjustly imprisoned and a prisoner of conscience.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

How the world remembered Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero five years after their murders

Paying homage to two murdered human rights defenders across the Americas

Activists remember Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero in Guatemala

Five years ago on Sunday, July 22, 2012 near Bayamo in eastern Granma province of Cuba the incident provoked by State Security ended the lives of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante. At 5:00pm, in a telephone call, Felix Rivero Cordoví from Bayamo reported"Oswaldo Payá has died in a collision with a police car."  Later we learned that Harold Cepero had also died of his injuries. Five years later and Cuban officials have still not handed over the autopsies to the families. Instead the Castro regime engaged in a massive coverup blaming the driver of the car for the deaths while denying that a second vehicle was involved.

Mass at Ermita de la Caridad celebrated lives of Oswaldo and Harold
 On the fifth anniversary of these suspicious deaths former world leaders such as former Chilean president Sebastian Piñera, former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, former Colombian president Andrés Pastrana, former Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla, and Mariana Aylwin, daughter of the late Chilean president Patricio Aylwin issued statements recognizing the living legacy of Oswaldo Payá. Others also demanded an impartial investigation into what happened to Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, and Harold Cepero Escalante on July 22, 2012. The current Secretary Genereral of the Organization American States issued a call "for a professional and impartial investigation."

Message from Secretary General on Anniversary of the Death of Oswaldo Payá

July 22, 2017

Five years ago, on July 22, 2012, Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero died when the vehicle they were riding in crashed into a tree in the eastern Cuban province of Bayamo. Ángel Carromero and Jens Aron Modig were also in the car.

Even today, series and well-founded doubts about the case persist. That is why on this new anniversary of the death of Oswaldo Payá, I join the call of the families of the victims and of all those who demand justice for a professional and impartial investigation.

Oswaldo Payá was perhaps the best-known activist in Cuba because of his tireless work in favor of democracy. Through the Varela Project he promoted the amendment of laws to respect the right to free expression, freedom of the press and freedom of association.

The Varela Project is based on the Constitution of Cuba itself, which under article 88 (g), grants legal initiative to citizens, among other powers.

The freedom to meet, associate and to speech are fundamental rights recognized in international human rights law and all democratic societies.

These principles must be respected. It is unacceptable that those who try to defend their rights are persecuted for their opinions and have their voices silenced.

From the OAS we must always promote respect for basic freedoms, that sovereignty lies in the people, and the most complete validity of human rights.

The struggle of Oswaldo Payá is absolutely inspiring for our defense of these principles and values.
Reference: S-022/17
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio in a tweet sent by his office expressed clearly that what happened on that day was an extrajudicial killing.
 Joining Senator Rubio in calling what happened on July 22, 2012 a murder are Senators Dick Durbin, Bill Nelson, Jeff Merkley, and Cuban Americans Bob Menéndez and Ted Cruz. They are demanding an independent and impartial investigation into what happened on that day.

Activities were carried out across the Americas remembering the legacy of Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero with peaceful gatherings and masses held in Miami, Cuba, Guatemala, Spain. The solidarity of the shaken was on display when family members of Venezuelan political prisoner Mayor Antonio Ledezma sent messages of solidarity and support recognizing Oswaldo's legacy. 
Hopefully the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will do its job and complete its investigation into killings of Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero finally after five years. Currently we only have the report prepared by Human Rights Foundation that indicates that the official version put out by the Castro regime was a coverup and that this was most likely an extrajudicial killing.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Nonviolent Legacy of Payá: Demonstrating Love is Stronger than Hate

The cause of human rights is a single cause, just as the people of the world are a single people. The talk today is of globalization, but we must state that unless there is global solidarity, not only human rights but also the right to remain human will be jeopardized. - Oswaldo Payá, December 17, 2002

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante
Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas was right when he observed that the failure of global solidarity would endanger both human rights and the right to remain human.  At the same time he demonstrated throughout his life the power of nonviolence and prior to his untimely death provided Cubans a road map to peaceful change called "The Peoples Path" whether or not the dictatorship in Cuba wanted it or not.

It is best described in a hopeful vision of the future that Oswaldo outlined in a 1990 Christmas Message from the Christian Liberation Movement:

"The rifles will be buried face down, the words of hatred will vanish in the heart without reaching the lips. We'll go out into the street and all of us will see in the other a brother, let us look to the future with the peace of he that knows that he forgave and he that has been forgiven. Let there be no blood to clean or dead to bury, the shadow of fear and of catastrophe will give way to the reconciliatory light, and Cuba will be reborn in every heart, in a miracle of love made by God and us." 
In 2012 months prior to his untimely death Harold Cepero gave a clear assessment of the risk each individual takes when confronting a brutal dictatorship.
"Christians and non-Christians who have the courage and the freedom to consider the peaceful political option for their lives, know they are exposing themselves to slightly less than absolute solitude, to work exclusion, to persecution, to prison or death."
The nonviolent legacy that Harold and Oswaldo shared revolves around two key ideas
  • We are not against other people, only what they are doing.
  • Means are ends in the making; nothing good can finally result from violence.
On December 17, 2002 in Strasbourg, France receiving the Sakharov Prize from the European Union Oswaldo explained what motivated the choice to embark on a nonviolent struggle:

"We have not chosen the path of peace as a tactic, but because it is inseparable from the goal for which our people are striving. Experience teaches us that violence begets more violence and that when political change is brought about by such means, new forms of oppression and injustice arise."
In nonviolent expert Michael N. Nagler's book, "The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide for Practical Action"  a passage that reflects both the struggle now taking place in Cuba and in Venezuela is critical to seeing where things stand:
"Conflicts escalate when they are not resolved, and if they are left untended they can rapidly get out of control." From the nonviolence point of view, the intensity of a conflict is not necessarily a question of how many guns or how many people are involved (the same metric would work for a quarrel between lovers as between nations); it is primarily about how far dehumanization has proceeded. If someone no longer listens to you, is calling you names or is labeling you, it’s probably too late for petitions. In terms of knowing how to respond, we can conveniently think of this escalation in three stages that call for distinct sets of responses. Let’s call these three stages Conflict Resolution, Satyagraha (active nonviolent resistance), and—hopefully this is rare, but it helps to know it exists—Ultimate Sacrifice.
Both Cuba and Venezuela offer demonstrations of the consequences of the failure of global solidarity and the power of nonviolence to confront injustice despite great odds. Due to this failure dehumanization has proceeded to the point where many are required to make the ultimate sacrifice within a context of nonviolent resistance.

Both in Cuba and in Venezuela the democratic opposition in its vast majority have chosen to pursue a nonviolent strategy, but their respective starting points are radically different. In Cuba the regime arrived in power through a violent revolution replacing a dictator, while in Venezuela the regime took power through the ballot box. Both sought to install totalitarianism, but in the case of Venezuela the residue of democracy has made it more difficult. Another factor is that in Cuba the opposition to the regime during the first seven years was a violent resistance with guerillas in the Escambray region. Despite their courage they where either exterminated or imprisoned.

"Violent flanks" and the use of the so-called "diversity of tactics" reduces mobilization and decreases the probability of success for a resistance movement. Strategic thinker Gene Sharper put it succinctly when he said "using violence is a stupid decision."

This would explain why both the Castro and Maduro regimes manufacture evidence and constantly accuse nonviolent activists of being violent ignoring all the evidence to the contrary. First and most importantly if the charges are believed it helps to reduce popular mobilization against these regimes which is the greatest threat to their power. Secondly, it raises questions that can impact international solidarity and support. Third, it allows these regimes to infiltrate agents to carry out violent acts that delegitimize the movement placing it on the defensive in damage control mode.

The Christian Liberation Movement and the CubaDecide campaign have advocated for a plebiscite in Cuba to both mobilize and empower Cubans for a democratic change. On Sunday, July 16, 2017 the Venezuelan opposition conducted an unofficial plebiscite where more than seven million Venezuelans defying government threats went out to vote. This is not a magic bullet but it has mobilized millions of Venezuelans, attracted international attention, strengthened the opposition and placed the government in a difficult position. Cubans should be watching closely as events unfold in Venezuela. The People's Path called for by Oswaldo Payá prior to his extrajudicial killing on July 22, 2012 appears to be working in Venezuela. It is still not too late for Cubans to follow this effective and nonviolent path of liberation.

Remembering Oswaldo Payá, Harold Cepero and July 22, 2012

"Those who remove and crush freedom are the real slaves." - Harold Cepero Escalante (January 29, 1980 - July 22, 2012)

"They have told me that they will kill me before this regime ends, but I will not flee." - Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas (February 29, 1952 - July 22, 2012)

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante
There are a few moments that are burned into my memory: the moment on January 28, 1986 when the Challenger blew up, the February 24, 1996 shoot down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes by Cuban MiGs, the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 and the murders of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante on July 22, 2012.

On Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 1:50pm near Bayamo in eastern Granma province of Cuba the incident provoked by State Security that ended the lives of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante was underway. Hundreds of miles away in Miami I was sitting in a movie theater in Kendall getting ready to watch The Dark Knight Rises. 

Exiting the movie theater at 6:00pm turned on my phone and Orlando Gutierrez was calling to tell me, "They had killed Oswaldo." I know several Oswaldos so immediately asked him "Oswaldo who?" "Payá" he told me, and my heart sank. I sat down opened my laptop and blogged about it in an effort to deal with this horror. 

Founding leader of the Christian Liberation Movement and author of numerous initiatives, including the Varela Project that made the Castro regime tremble and change their own constitution to hang on to power. Oswaldo Payá, like Liu Xiaobo in China, offered a peaceful way out of a totalitarian dictatorship. Began following in the late 1980s with great admiration, his long nonviolent struggle for a free Cuba.
Never met Oswaldo Payá in person, but had spoken to him on the telephone a handful of times. In 2003 the Cuban Democratic Directorate hosted his visit to Miami, but I was out of the country at the time and missed meeting him.

Funeral of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas following July 22, 2012 killing
Learned later on that in addition to Oswaldo Payá, another and much younger member of the Christian Liberation Movement had also been killed. First learned of Harold Cepero when he was expelled from university in 2002 for gathering signatures for Project Varela, a legal citizen initiative that sought to reform Cuba's legal code to bring it in line with international human rights standards and saw him in a grainy video interviewed with other expelled university students. Harold Cepero was the youth leader of the Christian Liberation Movement and was just 32 years old the day he was murdered by Cuban state security.

Five years later and friends and family of  Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero continue to demand truth and justice for their dear departed and continue the work to see the day that Cuba is free. Meanwhile we remember their example, their writings that continue to inspire, the terrible day they were taken away from us and the continuing need for justice.

"The first victory we can claim is that our hearts are free of hatred. Hence we say to those who persecute us and who try to dominate us: ‘You are my brother. I do not hate you, but you are not going to dominate me by fear. I do not wish to impose my truth, nor do I wish you to impose yours on me. We are going to seek the truth together’." - Oswaldo Paya, December 17, 2002 

"Christians and non-Christians who have the courage and the freedom to consider the peaceful political option for their lives, know they are exposing themselves to slightly less than absolute solitude, to work exclusion, to persecution, to prison or death. "- Harold Cepero, Havana 2012


Friday, July 21, 2017

The failure of the Americas in Venezuela: Chickens coming home to roost

"Curses are like young chickens, they always come home to roost."  Robert Southey,The Curse of Kehama (1809) 

Venezuela in 2017

Venezuela is on the edge and reaching a tipping point. Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), said at the Atlantic Council that one of the tragedies of Venezuela is that what is happening there could have been avoided.

Democracy was not defended early on and now it has become a security and humanitarian crisis. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in their 2016 annual report paints a grim picture of Venezuela today. Below is an excerpt from the introduction:
1. During 2016, the Inter -American Commission on Human Rights (hereinafter “the Commission” or “the IACHR”) has continued to monitor the overall human rights situation in Venezuela and has observed persistent structural situations that affect the human rights of Venezuelans and led to a grave political, social, and economic crisis. These structural situations identified by the Commission have first of all included a worsening of the citizen security situation, related to the right to life and humane treatment.
2. Second, there has been deterioration of the rule of law and democratic institutions. Reports continue of lack of access to justice and an independent and impartial judicial branch, while on the other hand, political polarization has been exacerbated, resulting in open confrontation between the legislative branch and the other State authorities that has affected the balance and separation of powers necessary for a democratic society. In this context, the Commission has also observed a corresponding impact on political rights and the right to participate in public life.
3. Third, a deterioration of the right to freedom of expression has been observed, including the arbitrary detention and imprisonment of opposition figures and individuals who publicly express their disagreement with the government; repression of and undue restrictions on the right to protest; dismissal of public employees or threatening them with losing their jobs should they express political opinions against the government; campaigns to stigmatize and harass journalists, opposition politicians, and citizens; the use of criminal law and other State controls to punish or inhibit the work of a critical media; and impediments to the right to access to information.
4. Fourth, access to economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR) has been severely restricted. Shortages and scarcity of food, medicine, water, and electricity have led to a grave crisis, contributing to disease outbreaks and other affects on health. The response to the situation has been deficient and in some situations entailed a lack of access to necessarily medical care. This has severely affected children, sick individuals, pregnant women, people with disabilities, and the elderly, among other groups. In this context, added to the political context, public protests have increased, and security forces have responded to them by using force.
5. The Commission has also continued to observe the precarious situations of human rights defenders, people deprived of liberty, migrants and refugees, and other particularly vulnerable groups. Finally, the Commission continues to find it difficult to conduct monitoring given that access to public information on the performance of State bodies is scarce, as is access to official data that would enable it to evaluate respect for human rights in Venezuela.

Obama shakes hands with Chavez in 2009 with Maduro in the background
Although the United States alone did not fail to defend democracy (others in the Americas also failed the South American country), it did play a role with a bad policy. The Obama Administration since 2009 sought a new relationship with Latin America, specifically with Venezuela and Cuba. It was achieved in the midst of a worsening human rights situation in the region, coinciding with the expanding influence and legitimization of the Castro regime as it normalized relations with the United States.

President Obama's March 21, 2016 visit to Cuba was not a step forward, but a huge leap backward into the 1960s when U.S. foreign policy in Latin America embraced military dictators calling them "Presidents." The visit was another part of the failed foreign policy legacy of the Obama administration, which in this case prolongs the life of the communist regime in Cuba and legitimized it internationally while marginalizing Cuba's democratic opposition. This has also had consequences for other countries in the region such as Venezuela where according to OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro: “There are currently about 15,000 Cubans in Venezuela,” ... “It’s like an occupation army from Cuba in Venezuela.”

The Obama family take in a baseball game with Raul Castro in March 2016
This process has also been underway in Nicaragua, along with the continued denial of that reality by the American embassy there. Opposition lawmakers have been ousted by an electoral authority controlled by president Daniel Ortega. Ortega did not permit foreign observers into Nicaragua to monitor the November 6 presidential and legislative elections that were riggedDespite normal relations and high level outreach early in the Obama Administration the Ortega regime pursued closer relations with Russia and China. In April 2016 Nicaragua purchased 50 Russian battle tanks at a cost of $80 million. Vladimir Putin signed a new security agreement with Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega in 2016.

Strong man Daniel Ortega and President Obama in 2009
There is a price to embracing and legitimizing autocrats, unfortunately the United States will be paying it for years to come, as will many others in the Americas.  Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) in testimony before the United States Senate on July 19, 2017 highlighted the cost of not defending democracy in Venezuela:
"When others were content to look the other way as Venezuela collapsed into dictatorship, I raised my voice to denounce the systematic violation of the Constitution and the escalating violent repression. There is no greater crisis facing our hemisphere today. We must stand in solidarity with the brave people of Venezuela in restoring democracy and the rule of law in their country.
My raison d’etre at the OAS is “More Rights for More People”. This is a solemn commitment I take seriously every single day. It is a responsibility of which I will never tire. It is the fundamental role of the Organization of American States – to stand vigilant in defense of democracy throughout the Americas. This is why the Inter -American Democratic Charter was created. It is a commitment that all member states must take seriously at this moment of truth for Venezuela.
In a Hemisphere of close to 1 billion people, 20 countries that represent nearly 90% of the population of the Americas joined to speak in defense of democracy in Venezuela. Twenty foreign ministers advocated for the lives and human rights of the Venezuelan people, at the General Assembly that took place in Mexico in June. But as the violence in Venezuela escalates and the death toll continues to rise, it is clear that words are not enough.
The reluctance of the international community to act in defense of democracy has allowed the situation to deteriorate incrementally, but consistently, to the point where today it has become a full- blown humanitarian and security crisis. Every step of the way it has been too little, and too late. The Democratic Charter was designed as a preventative tool. When it was agreed, it established a very explicit authority to act in every signatory state, when necessity requires. When used as intended, it can prevent or stop any backsliding in the regions’ hard -earned democracies.
It is true that only the people of Venezuela must solve the crisis in their country. However, in Venezuela, the words of civilians are met with the weapons of the Regime. The people of Venezuela peacefully took to the streets in defense of their fundamental rights and freedoms. The Regime responded strategically and systematically, targeting an unarmed, civilian population with violence and terror.
More than 100 people have been killed since the protests began. That is one close one person each day. Of those killed, more than 30 were under the age of 21; 24 were students; 14 were teenagers. Since the protests began, more than 450 investigations into human rights violations have been opened. Civil society estimates that the number civilians injured is above 15,000.
As of July 12, there were 444 political prisoners in Venezuela; the highest number since the military dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez. These statistics do not include the thousands of lives lost in the humanitarian crisis. Countless Venezuelans are dying without food or medicine - between 4 and 6 children die every week from malnutrition."
Million of people are losing their freedom and thousands of people are losing their lives. This humanitarian and security disaster was first a moral and ethical one that could have been prevented. The international community bears a measure of responsibility in what is unfolding in Venezuela. Hopefully responsibility will be taken to resolve it.