Remarks by Senator Robert Menendez at the 2013 Democracy Award

Thank you to the National Endowment for Democracy for inviting me. It’s an honor to be here with all of you who work so hard for the values we hold dear and to see the future of democracy in the faces of tonight’s honorees – those who are here to accept this award, and one courageous young man who gave his life for freedom.

Tonight’s honorees give us hope for – a world without corruption and discrimination – a world where equality, justice and political tolerance are available to all.  Glanis Changachirere, founding director of the Institute for Young Women Development in Zimbabwe; Gulalai Ismail, providing leadership to young women in Northwest Pakistan; Vera Kichanova, fighting for transparency as a member of Moscow’s municipal council; And, the late Harold Cepero of Cuba’s Christian Liberation Movement that organized the Varela project – a citizen movement to establish democracy in Cuba;

Harold Cepero was a rising leader in Cuba’s growing political opposition, one of its unsung democratic heroes who – along with Oswaldo Paya – was killed under suspicious circumstances in an automobile accident on July 22, 2012.

We are honored today – as we approach the first anniversary of that tragedy — to welcome the daughter of Oswaldo Paya: Rosa Maria Paya — to accept the award on behalf of Harold Cepero.  Rosa Maria, be assured the world will not forget, I will not forget, and the legacy of your father and Harold Cepero will be carried on.  His dream will one day become a reality and there will be freedom and democracy in Cuba.  Right now, however, we need to work toward that dream by holding the Castro government accountable for their actions. We need an independent international investigation into the incident that night in Cuba a year ago.

I am proud to have written a letter — with Senators Durbin and Rubio, Nelson, Cardin and McCain – calling on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to carry-out an international investigation into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero. We, in the family of democratic nations, in the name of transparency, owe them no less.

Tonight’s honorees take their place next to past recipients – those courageous men and women who have come before them: Violetta Chamorro of Nicaragua; Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic; and Cubans Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia; Jorge Garcia Perez (Antunez); Ivan Hernandez Carillo; Librado Linares Garcia; and Iris Tamara Perez Aguilar.

They represent the power of youth… the courage of the next generation who believe in equal rights, in the rights of women, in justice, transparency, and the hope for freedom.  They believe in the right to a good education, and for the opportunity — for all — to live in peace and build a better life for themselves and their families.

Let us remember that the struggle for democracy requires more than the adoption of a few insignificant economic changes that give the appearance of freedom in an effort to deny the opportunity for real political change – what Oswaldo Paya called “fraudulent change.”

The struggle for democracy requires real, honest, political change and real political change requires the kind of courage we see represented in this year’s honorees the courage of the individual to stand for what they believe is fair and just in the face of oppression and authoritarianism; a belief in the rights of the individual to pursue happiness – as they choose to pursue it.  

That is the struggle we celebrate tonight that is our hope for the future and tonight’s honorees are the embodiment of that hope.

Congratulations to all and our thoughts and prayers are with Harold Cepero and Oswaldo Paya tonight and every night until the people of Cuba are free.

Thank you to Carl Gershman and everyone at the National Endowment for Democracy and in the NED family – NDI, IRI, CIPE, and the Solidarity Center – and keep up the good work.