As Cuba’s leading political dissident, Oswaldo Payá knew what it meant to live dangerously. He had spent time in Castro’s jails, where so many charged with “counterrevolutionary activities” had perished. Death threats were not unusual. There was the time that one of his relatives had received a menacing phone call. The voice on the end of the line said: “We are with a revolutionary group and we are going to kill Oswaldo Payá.” Always there was the terrible awareness that if the government wanted to kill you, it could.
Whether it finally succeeded in Payá's case is not completely clear. The official line of the Cuban government is that Payá was killed last weekend in an accidental car crash near the Cuban city of Bayamo. In the government's account, Payá’s car hit a tree, killing him and another passenger. This version of events has been directly challenged by Payá’s daughter, Rosa Maria Payá. She says she received information from witnesses that her father’s car was repeatedly rammed by another car. “There was a car trying to take them off the road, crashing into them at every moment. So we think it’s not an accident,’’ she told CNN en Español. “They wanted to do harm and they ended up killing my father.”
Payá’s death remains under investigation, but, Cuba being Cuba, it’s hard to imagine that the resulting findings will cast doubt on the government’s story. Already, the police officer who was at the crash site has dismissed speculation that Payá was murdered because, as he put it, “the revolution does not assassinate anyone.” It’s a surreal claim to make about a government that has killed tens of thousands, not including nearly 80,000 who have died while trying to flee Castro’s tyranny. But then, in Cuba, the truth is what the government says it is.
Oswaldo Payá, a devout Catholic, was not a believer in that truth. Like many political dissidents, he had a lifelong rebellious streak. The story goes that when Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Payá, then all of seven years old, was the only child in his Havana primary school who refused to become a member of the Communist Youth. As a teenager, he protested the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. At a time when Fidel Castro had given his blessing for the Soviet effort to “save” socialism at gunpoint, this was no small act of defiance. Payá paid the price with his freedom, and in 1968 he was sent for three years to the Isle of Pines, a forced labor camp that claimed the lives of countless Cubans. Perhaps Payá’s greatest act of protest was his refusal to leave Cuba during the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, when as many as 125,000 Cubans took advantage of a brief opening in immigration policy to escape Cuba for freedom in Florida. His reasoning was simple and brave: Cuba needed people who would stay behind and fight for it.
Payá did just that, most notably through the Christian Liberation Movement he founded. As the name suggested, the movement’s goal was ambitious: the liberation of Cuba and the restoration of human rights for the Cuban people. But having seen what the Cuban revolution achieved Payá did not believe in the violent overthrow of the government. His movement would be non-violent and organized at the grassroots. It wasn't long before it became one of the largest opposition movements in Cuba, earning comparisons to the anti-communist Solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa in Poland. For Payá, it represented something bigger still: the ultimate “duel between power and spirit in Cuba.”
Though Payá did not believe in revolution, in 2002 he managed to bring about a major political coup. It began in 1996, when he launched a petition drive he called the Varela Project. The goal was to gather 11,000 signatures in support of a petition calling for democracy, free elections and basic rights like freedom of speech and association, as well as the release of political prisoners. Democratic initiatives were not recognized by the government, but a small loophole was presented by a 1976 article added to the Cuban constitution. It stipulated that any petition that garnered more than 10,000 signatures would have to be discussed in the Cuban National Assembly. Payá made his life’s work to achieve the 10,000-signature mark.
It was a forbiddingly difficult task. Petitions required signatories to list their real names but many Cubans justly feared government reprisal if they signed and refused. The Cuban government did all it could to stop him. Security agents trashed Payá’s home and stole lists of signatures. Government agents followed him everywhere. He was branded a “traitor” and turned into a non-person. Payá never wavered. By 2002, he had managed to collect not just 10,000 but 11,020 signatures, forcing official recognition of his petition. It was a small step for democracy but a monumental political victory.
Fidel Castro was sufficiently alarmed to respond with his own referendum to amend the Cuban constitution to say that socialism on the island was “untouchable.” Castro’s referendum passed with its standard government-enforced majority of 98.9 percent of the vote. For good measure, the following year the government launched a mass crackdown on opposition in which some 80 dissidents were arrested. Among them were many who had signed the Varela Project petition.
By then, however, there was one opposition figure that the government could not openly arrest. Payá’s petition campaign had won him international acclaim. In 2002, the European Parliament awarded him its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2002. (Ever the dissident, Payá probably unsettled some secularists by dedicating his award to the “the Lord Jesus.”) He was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Jimmy Carter, during a visit to Cuba, offered public praise for the Varela Project's goals. As Castro discovered, Payá, too, was now untouchable.
Much has been made in the press about Payá’s differences with the Cuban exile community in Miami. It is true that he broke with the exiles over issues like the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which he opposed. But it’s worth noting that Payá’s opposition to the embargo was as much strategic as political. He believed that it provided Castro with a ready excuse for Cuba’s systemic economic failures. Distancing himself from Cuban exiles on this issue also made it more difficult for the government to cast him as stooge of the CIA (not that it didn't try anyway). But Payá was anything but naïve. Ending the embargo, he knew, was not an end in itself. As he repeatedly told journalists, American holidaymakers would not liberate Cuba from Castro.
Similarly, Payá had little patience for the political fictions of the Hollywood left. Interviewed by Castro sympathizer Oliver Stone for an HBO documentary on the dictator, he found the director in equal parts shallow and clueless. “I thought he was very misinformed about what is going on in Cuba,” Payá said. “He was more interested in the love life of Fidel Castro than what is happening to 11 million Cubans.” This was in a way too charitable. If rich celebrities like Stone could admire Castro, it was because they didn't have to live under the system of crushing poverty and repression he had imposed on the Cuban people.
Fighting that repression was the cause of Oswaldo Payá heroic and too-short life. A true Cuban patriot, he surrendered the possibility of freedom abroad for the chance to advance it in his home country. And if in the end it proves true that the Cuban government finally was able to silence Payá, it remains equally true that his immense contribution to a free and democratic Cuba will endure, untouchable like the great man himself.
To watch a documentary about Oswaldo Payá and his work with the Varela Project, click here.
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