Cubans petition for democratic reforms, 1998-2003


To legalize democratic reforms such as:
-the establishment of freedom of association
-freedom of speech
-freedom of the press
-free elections
-freedom to start private businesses
-amnesty for political prisoners

Time period

January, 1998 to October, 2003



Location City/State/Province

Jump to case narrative

Methods in 1st segment

Methods in 2nd segment

Methods in 5th segment

  • letter sent to National Assembly asking for petition to be published
  • circulated pamphlets containing Varela Project proposals

Methods in 6th segment

Segment Length

11.5 months


Christian Liberation Movement, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, Miguel Saludes García, Juan Antonio Rodríguez Avila, Antonio Ramón Díaz Sánchez


Cuban Foundation of Human Rights

External allies

Not known

Involvement of social elites

Former US President Jimmy Carter, US President George W. Bush


Cuban government

Nonviolent responses of opponent

Not known

Campaigner violence

No known campaigner violence

Repressive Violence

Police arrested and detained activists, confiscated signatures, and threatened both activists and signers


Human Rights



Group characterization

Catholic activists

Additional notes on joining/exiting order

Joining order not known

Segment Length

11.5 months

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

0 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


3 out of 3 points

Total points

4 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

The campaign received a "3" for growth because of the international attention it garnered and the number of signers, which exceeded the requisite amount for a referendum. The petition has continued to grow in subsequent campaigns. The 2002 campaign's fundamental goals - to bring about greater civil and economic liberties and attain amnesty for political prisoners- were never even considered by the National Assembly, which suspended the initiative on the grounds of its legality.

Database Narrative

Since coming to power in 1959, Cuban leader Fidel Castro systematically repressed any voice of dissent under his regime. Tens of thousands of citizens labeled dissidents were arrested and imprisoned in the years following the revolution. By 1960, all newspapers, radio and television stations were strictly censored by the Department of Revolutionary Orientation. The Interior Ministry exercised its authority by closely monitoring citizens for any sign of dissent. Although Cuba was deemed to be an authoritarian regime by other countries’ standards, given the decades of one-party rule under Castro, the president insisted that the international criteria for democracy did not apply to Cuba. Despite the 1992 amendments to the Constitution, which allowed for alternative political parties to be formed, the government did not permit opposition groups to organize any public political activity. When dissidents protested in the Maleconazo uprising in 1994, the riots were dispersed within a few hours.

In 1988, non-violent dissident Oswaldo Payá Sardinas and fellow Catholics created the Christian Liberation Movement (MLA). The group, which was established in the same year that Payá started his independent magazine, God’s People, worked to promote human rights.

In June 1998, Payá launched the Varela Project, a nonpartisan campaign whose purpose was to demand a vote on expanded civil liberties. Named for the Cuban independence leader Felix Varela, the campaign structured its goals around four proposals: freedom of speech and association, electoral reforms, the right to own private businesses, and amnesty for political prisoners. The Varela Project hoped to further these reforms by working within the institutional framework of the state: under Article 88 of the Constitution, any legal initiative supported by at least 10,000 citizens must be discussed by the National Assembly and put to a vote. By collecting at least 10,000 signatures for its proposals, the group hoped to pressure the government into considering reforms.

The campaign received support from other opposition groups such as the Cuban Foundation of Human Rights, led by Juan Carlos González Leyva, which was involved in collecting signatures. Although the MLA began meeting with other opposition groups to formulate the project as early as 1998, the signature gathering did not officially begin until March 2001.

On May 10, 2002, after having verified each signature, Payá and two other activists delivered 11,020 signatures to the National Assembly. The delivery was timed to coincide with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Cuba, which happened two days later.

During his six-day visit, Carter offered public support to the project. In a speech delivered at the University of Havana, Carter praised the campaign and demanded that the government publish the petition. U.S. President Bush also threw his weight behind the project in a policy speech on Cuba few days later, when he urged the government to answer the project’s demands for democratic reform. In the period of months following Carter’s televised addressed, Varela supporters circulated copies of Carter’s speech and the petition throughout Havana.

Rather than permit the referendum, the government responded by dismissing the campaigners for having misinterpreted the constitution. Roberto Alarcón, head of the National Assembly, argued that there existed no provision that allowed citizens to amend the constitution by means of a voter initiative. Such an amendment would have to be initiated by a government body, not individual citizens.

The project’s goals were further undermined by Bush’s speech, in which he announced that the US trade embargo would not be lifted until Castro held elections and permitted free speech. Bush also lent his support to a bill that would provide $100 million worth of telephones, fax machines, food and other supplies to dissident groups on the island. Although on the surface this elite US support might have seemed like a legitimizing factor for the opposition movement in Cuba, in reality the speech made it easier for Fidel Castro to portray the Varela Project as a mere puppet US leaders to threaten Cuba’s sovereignty. 

In response to Bush’s calls for democratic reform, Castro framed the proposal to fund dissidents as a direct attack on his regime and the survival of socialism in Cuba. In June 2002, he announced that there would be a referendum for citizens to decide on whether the National Assembly should consider a constitutional amendment. The new amendment would cement the socialist system as an irrevocable framework for the Cuban government.

On June 12, a month after the Varela Project presented their petition, Castro led a march of hundreds of thousands of citizens to rally support for the amendment. The march, which wound its way along the Havana seafront and passed the U.S. mission, was meant as a statement against George W. Bush and his criticisms of the regime.

On June 27, the Assembly voted to add the amendment. The vote came at the end of three days of speeches during which schools and offices were closed. In their addresses before the National Assembly, legislators argued that such an amendment was necessary to guarantee that socialism would live on after the deaths of Fidel and Raul Castro. Although no mention was made of the Varela petition in any of the speeches, the amendment sent a clear message to opposition group that nothing in the constitution would be changed.

According to one of the state-controlled newspapers, 8.2 million Cubans signed the petitions. Although the number seemed to indicate overwhelming support (for a population of about 11 million) many citizens felt pressured to sign the petition since the signatures were gathered by local committees rather than representatives from a federal agency.

In August, Varela Project organizers sent a letter to the National Assembly asking that they publish the contents of the petition in state newspapers so that citizens could form their own opinions. The letter also included a list of the repressive actions taken against different signers.

As the face of the project, Payá received anonymous death threats throughout the campaign. His house, which was continually under surveillance by government officials, was frequently defaced. In October 2002, the government prevented him from leaving the island to attend an event in Washington, DC, where he was supposed to be honored for the project. Although the government paid him special attention, Payá was by no means the only member targeted - many of the project’s campaigners were harassed and threatened by government officials in the process of gathering signatures. Those who signed the petition were also harassed by state security agents, who threatened them with public humiliation and expulsion from their jobs if they did not rescind their signatures.

In March 2003, the Cuban government conducted a mass arrest to clean the island of dissidents from various opposition groups. The majority of dissidents targeted - at least 50 - were Varela Project activists, including Héctor Palacios, one of the group’s key organizers. Journalists, librarians, and regional leaders were also among those charged with subversive behavior. Levya and other high-profile opposition leaders were arrested on charges such as official disrespect and resisting arrest.

On April 3, authorities began trying the dissidents in courtrooms from which foreign journalists and diplomats were prohibited. All were convicted of conspiring with American diplomats on the island, which allowed the government to persecute them under a 1999 law that prohibited citizens from assisting the US trade embargo. Alarcón of the National Assembly, along with other lawmakers, said that the dissidents had threatened Cuba’s sovereign interests by plotting with James Carson, the chief American diplomat in Havana.  Although the embargo law had little to do with the government’s underlying motivation for dismembering the Varela project, it allowed government officials to portray the activists as traitors by associating them with the United States. Many of the project’s supporters insisted that most of the regional coordinators who were targeted by the government had never met Carson.

On April 8, after five days of trials, the courts delivered their verdicts. While some of the lower-profile supporters of the project received six years in prison, most organizers, such as Palacios, were sentenced to 20-25 years.

On October 1, state security agents visited the homes of leading representatives of the Citizens’ Steering Committee for the Varela Project. The agents informed the organizers that they would not permit further meetings of the group, and that if they did meet, they would be arrested and charged for subversion and illicit association.

Despite these warnings, on October 3, 2003, Payá and fellow campaigners returned to the National Assembly offices to present the petition again, this time with 14,384 additional signatures. Once again, the Assembly ignored the petition on the grounds that it demanded constitutional changes, which could not be initiated by citizens.

Given that the government refused to accept the petition, the Varela Project’s proposals were never put to a popular vote. The Project did, however, gain international acclaim for having mobilized a substantial number of people in favor of regime changes. Besides receiving numerous Nobel Prize nominations, Paya also received the Andrei Sakharov Prize from the EU Parliament, after which he met with a number of presidents and high-level officials throughout Europe and the United States in 2002. Despite having widespread international support, the Varela Project did not bring about democratic reform in Cuba. If anything, the campaign was one of the contributing factors in Castro’s decision to mummify the constitution and make the one-party socialist state untouchable.

This is not to say the Varela Project has been eliminated- if anything, Payá and other leading activists have continued the momentum of the democratic reform movement with a new campaign under the title of the “National Dialogue.” The campaign, launched in December 2003, involved thousands of Cubans both on and off the island that participated in “dialogue groups” to discuss Cuba’s future in terms of economic changes, political changes, social issues, and relations with the exile community. After processing over 3,000 individual and group recommendations, a commission led by Payá created a Program for All Cubans, a proposal that they hoped to pass through a referendum.


Payá cited the Prague Spring, a period of democratic opening in Czechoslovakia in 1968, as one of his crucial influences. (1)


"BBC NEWS | Americas | Cubans March in Favour of Socialism." BBC News- Americas. BBC News, 12 June 2002. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <>.

"Crackdown Is Called a Major Setback for Cuban Dissidents - New York Times." New York Times. New York Times, 23 Apr. 2003. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <>.

Gonzalez, David. "Cuban Dissidents Get Prison Terms as Long as 27 Years - New York Times." New York Times. New York Times, 8 Apr. 2003. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <>.

Gonzalez, David. "In Time for Carter's Visit, Cubans Petition Government - New York Times." The New York Times. New York Times, 11 May 2002. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <>.

"National Dialogue Cuba." DIÁLOGO NACIONAL - National Dialogue. Varela Project, 2005. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <>.

Schweimler, Daniel. "Cuba Votes on 'untouchable' System." BBC News- Americas. BBC News, 15 June 2002. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <>.

"Varela Project." ICDC: International Committee for Democracy in Cuba. ICDC, 2005. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Carmen Smith-Estrada, 20/11/2011