WHAT WAS it about a simple petition drive more than a decade ago that so frightened Fidel Castro? Cuba’s constitution provides that a law may be proposed by citizens if 10,000 people or more sign a petition. The dissident Oswaldo Payá and others gathered 11,020 signatures by May 2002 on the petition of the Varela Project, what Mr. Payá said was “a citizens’ movement for peaceful change,” demanding guarantees of political freedom in Cuba. Then Mr. Castro’s state security went into overdrive. In what was called the Black Spring in 2003, some 75 of Mr. Payá’s friends and colleagues were rounded up and imprisoned, including 29 journalists. Many served years in squalid jails before being released.
They suffered for a document that is elegant and logical on its face but that profoundly threatened the Castro regime. First, the petition demanded guarantees of free speech and association. It declared, “These rights and all human rights existed before anyone formulated them or wrote them down; you and all your fellow men have these rights because you are people, because you are human. Laws do not create these rights, but they must guarantee them.” Next, the petition called for amnesty for political prisoners. A third section authorized private enterprises. Mr. Payá understood that economic and political freedom went hand in hand. Lastly, the petition called for competitive elections and candidates elected directly by popular vote, breaking the hold of the one-party state.
In the end, Mr. Castro squelched the Varela Project. But the timeless goals of the petition are still relevant in the search for truth about the deaths of Mr. Payá and activist Harold Cepero last July in a car crash in eastern Cuba. To read the Varela document again today is to see that Mr. Payá struck where the regime is most vulnerable: at its legitimacy to rule from above. Mr. Payá insisted that legitimacy came from below, from “the participation of citizens in the political, economic and cultural life of the country as free people.” Perhaps that is why, although not imprisoned, Mr. Payá had been subjected to death threats for so long.
The suspicious circumstances of the deaths of Mr. Payá and Mr. Cepero demand an investigation that won’t be tainted by the Cuban authorities. That investigation must address serious questions about whether the car in which the men were riding was rammed from behind by a vehicle with government license plates, as the car’s driver, Ángel Carromero, said in a recent interview published on the opposite page.
On Thursday, the United States joined calls for such a probe, which have also been made by 10 U.S. senators and Mr. Payá’s family. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “The people of Cuba and the families of these two activists deserve a clear, credible accounting of the events that resulted in their tragic deaths.” The next question is who will have the principled courage of Mr. Payá and lead an investigation to extract the truth from Cuba.