The Varela Project (Proyecto Varela in Spanish) is a project that was started in 1998 by Oswaldo Payá of the Christian Liberation Movement (CLM) and named after Felix Varela, a Cuban religious leader.
Many members were imprisoned during the Black Spring in 2003.
The Varela Project citizens' initiative 
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 relies on Article #88(g) of the Cuban Constitution Text of 1976, which allows citizens to propose laws if 10,000 persons who are registered to vote support the proposal with their names, national identification numbers, addresses, and signatures.
The organization reported having collected 11,020 signatures, more than the requisite number for consideration by Cuban National Assembly. The Cuban National Assembly's Constitution and Legal Affairs Committee suspended consideration of the Varela Project citizens' initiative and responded with its own counter initiative, providing that the Cuban Constitution be amended to make permanent the socialist nature of the Cuban state. After votes were held on the counter initiative, the Cuban government claimed that it was met with 99% voter approval.
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 Project 
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, which is against the law in Cuba and many other countries, including the United States. The dissidents deny 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.
Cuban government's response to the Varela Project 
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. The Cuban government claimed that the other freedoms were already guaranteed to the Cuban people and were only included in the project's stated goals to divert attention from the privatization aspect of the project.
Statement of the Foreign Minister 
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 Justice 
"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 Cason 
Cuba maintains that the head of the US Special Interests section in Havana, James Cason has given 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 arrestees 
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. Ferrer is serving a 25-year sentence for "acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the State."
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. Prieto is serving a 20-year sentence for "acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the State."
Yarai Reyes, wife of Normando Hernandez Gonzalez, another of the 75 activists, reported that prison authorities incited common prisoners to beat her husband. Hernandez is serving a 25-year sentence for "acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the State."
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. Ruiz is serving an 18-year sentence for "acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the State."
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 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 that are allowed other prisoners. As a result, he lost 60 pounds and he is in poor health.
External commentary on the Varela Project 
British Broadcasting Corporation 
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 statements 
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, a long-time opponent of the Cuban government, remains free, but the resulting crackdown by the authorities has resulted in the incarceration of 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
Amnesty International 
International reaction 
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. 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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