While Colombia was being transformed, the Cuban government was tightening its grip on dissent, despite the best efforts of Payá. His Varela Project stemmed from Article 88 of the 1976 Communist constitution, which allows citizens to propose laws if they can collect at least 10,000 signatures from eligible voters. Payá secured more than 10,000 supporters for his democratic-reform petition, and in May 2002 he presented it to the Cuban National Assembly. Just days later, Jimmy Carter discussed the Varela Project during a visit to Cuba, and the European Parliament subsequently honored Payá with its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. By that point, unfortunately, the Castro regime had cooked up its own sham “petition” and amended the constitution to reaffirm an ironclad commitment to Communism. Then, in early 2003, the government launched a massive crackdown, jailing dozens of human-right activists, including many allies of Payá.
When Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Cuba last month, he saw a country whose political system and economy appear to be stuck in a time warp. Prior to his arrival, many democracy advocates were jailed, lest they organize public protests. Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas, winner of the Sakharov Prize in 2010, called it “a wave of repression.” (After Benedict left the island, the imprisoned activists were released.) While Benedict urged Havana to introduce greater political freedoms, a senior Cuban official responded by telling reporters, “We are updating our economic model, but we are not talking about political reform.”
Speaking of the Cuban economic model, much has been made of Raúl Castro’s minor reforms, which have expanded opportunities for Cuban entrepreneurs and taken various other baby steps toward boosting private enterprise. Yet in the 2012 Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom, Cuba ranks 177th out of 179 countries, and it scores dead last for “investment freedom” and “property rights.” For that matter, only North Korea scores lower for “business freedom,” “financial freedom,” and “labor freedom.” The truth, as Yale historian Carlos Eire wrote last year, is that Castro’s reforms are “a desperate, ridiculous attempt to camouflage repression and maintain the current status quo.”
Over the past decade, Colombia has shown Latin America — and the world — what real change looks like. By contrast, Castro has left the Cuban economic system basically intact. As for free and fair elections, the regime no longer even pretends it is moving in that direction. Indeed, a decade after Payá brought his pro-democracy petition to the National Assembly, Cuba seems further from political freedom than ever.
This article is available in Spanish here.