Oswaldo Paya was a devout Catholic, a patriot, an engineer who worked at his government job repairing medical equipment, a Cuban who could not imagine leaving Cuba and instead opted to stay and try to change it.
His Varela Project, carried out by the Christian Liberation Movement that he led, was a petition drive that was unique among the initiatives undertaken by Cuba’s dissidents in that it successfully enlisted large-scale citizen participation. The project took advantage of a provision in Cuba’s constitution that allows a bill to be presented for debate in the National Assembly if 10,000 registered voters bring a petition to that effect. It proposed an expansion of civil and economic rights and release of political prisoners, and it was delivered to the National Assembly in 2002, eventually with 25,000 signatures.
The Varela Project drew criticism. Fellow dissident Rene Gomez Manzano, a former law professor, wrote that it was invalid because it sought changes to Cuba’s constitution, something not permitted by the constitution’s citizen initiative provision. More important, it drew criticism from other dissidents and from many in Miami who oppose the idea of working within Cuba’s governing structures to effect change.
The initiative was rejected by the National Assembly.
The arrest and imprisonment of 75 dissidents in 2003 focused in large part on the Christian Liberation Movement, the network that circulated the petition and gathered the signatures. When Paya met visiting U.S. legislators in his home in subsequent years, he always invited wives of these prisoners to speak on their husbands’ behalf. He opposed the U.S. embargo but preferred always to talk about the political issues that in his view mattered the most, i.e. those that need to be settled among Cubans alone.
(Photo from European Parliament website.)