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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