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.
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