Fidel Castro Rival and Civil Rights Leader Oswaldo Paya Dies At 61


On Monday, a vigil was held for Cuban civil rights leader Oswaldo Payá in Havana – a presidential sendoff, as writer, photographer, truth-teller, and activist Orlando Luis Pardo tweeted from Cuba. But, in the same breath, Pardo lamented that it was barely a sendoff fit for such a man,  and he wished that even 1% of those gathered that evening had joined Payá’s efforts while alive. Renowned dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez posted footage – a brimming church, a swaying crowd signing La Bayamesa, the Cuban National Anthem. En cadenas vivir es vivir en afrenta y oprobio sumido. To live in chains is to live in dishonor and ignominy. In communal crescendo, Morir por la patria, es vivir. To die for your country is to live.

The words fit, but what comfort could they give a grieving family and a reeling group of fellow activists; what answers, to an international press alleging government foul play in the car accident that had killed Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero a day earlier?

On Tuesday, at Payá's funeral, dozens of dissidents were arrested by Cuban police – an appalling erosion of common decency and respect for the dead.

Few things in life are simple. Most things are gray and murky, forever tainted by dichotomies and symbiotic pairings – we can’t escape the ineffable interdependence between hope and hardship, pain and survival, faith and sacrifice. In Cuba, the absurd and extreme rule in tandem. 

“So much freedom, so little freedom. Freedom to be reckless, but no genuine freedom from woe. Plenty of thrills, and an overabundance of risks, large and small.” – Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire

Against this contradictory and Orwellian backdrop, a tale as old as time has raged for the 53 years since Castro took power – Cain and Abel, brother vs. brother, a country imploding and a people stagnated in rebirth. Into this mess – for lack of a more sophisticated word – Oswaldo Payá waded to ask for what his countrymen legitimately deserved and to create the first open dialogue the island had witnessed in decades. 

In 1998, he founded the Varela Project to petition for a national referendum on freedom of expression, of the press, of elections. Thousands of signatures were collected by hand – at the risk of all who penned their name and all who trekked to ask them to do so – and presented to the National Assembly. Appropriately, the project was named after Felix Varela, a notable Catholic priest who was condemned to death by the government for supporting the abolition of slavery in Cuba. Varela escaped to the United States, where he continued to write about human rights and religious tolerance, and to build bridges between the English and Spanish-speaking communities in Florida. For his devout life, he is currently under consideration to be canonized as a Catholic Saint.

In a country where trabajo voluntario – volunteerism – is ironically compulsory, Payá and his peers volunteered for the thankless, dangerous, and Sisyphean task of demanding their rights in a nonviolent and legal way from an oppressive regime.

In the end, the government dismissed the signatures, designated them as counter-revolutionary, jailed dozens, and swept the Varela Project under the rug. Many Cubans, especially in the provinces, have yet to hear that their rights were being clamored for ten years ago. Despite threats, oppressive actions, and diminished support, Payá continued to work and seek his vision of a free and fair Cuba and to encourage open dialogue and debate – building castles out of quicksand.

His work changed the tone of discourse in Cuba, bridged differences, and inspired many on both shores of the Florida Straights.

I met Oswaldo Payá briefly this past March, when I attended a mass by Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, given in the Havana Cathedral in honor of Pope Benedict’s visit to Cuba. It was a stellar oratory triumph, an honest denunciation from a faithful man of all sides of the “Cuba issue,” and it was met with a standing ovation. Playing a seemingly unnoticed cat-and-mouse game with plain-clothed security officers, Payá wove through the crowd. He was there in violation of restrictions placed on dissidents during the Papal visit, somehow having made his way despite being under surveillance. Many of us were handed leaflets calling for democratic change in Cuba, only to turn around and see no one there who could have given it to us. A silent, humble, but defiant angel.

With him that afternoon was Harold Cepero, who died with Payá on Sunday and was rushed to a hurried burial on Monday. Harold was a young dissident and dreamer who became involved with Payá when he and his friends were attacked and forced to withdraw from their university after signing the Varela Project. For all my travels and experiences, I’ve never met a person like Harold, a living and breathing mix of great sorrow and buoyant hope.

In typical Cuban duality, this isn’t just the story of men who willed the Varela Project into existence and received the Sakharov Prize for their work (Payá did). It is the story of men who shouldered responsibility and who persisted despite arrests, poverty, persecution. But it is also the story of a great loss felt too soon and of even greater shame and regret if the accusations of foul play are not apocryphal.

For my part, as I drove to a vigil being held in Miami to honor Oswaldo and Harold on Tuesday, I dangerously ignored the road and hallucinated a single distinct memory of two men – alone – handing out pamphlets for a vision of the future they were willing to risk their lives for. In the deceptive labyrinths of Cuban history and politics, memory is what we have to live on, simultaneously the food of our souls and the plaything of our future children. 

“Memory is the most potent truth. Show me history untouched by memories and you show me lies.” – Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire