Requiem for a Cuban Dissident: Why Oswaldo Payá Spooked Castro

The untimely death of Oswaldo Payá leaves Cuba bereft of a charismatic dissident who sought a middle path between the hardline dogmas of both his country's communist rulers and right-wing exiles abroad

  • Share
  • Read Later
Franklin Reyes / AP

Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya speaks with journalists after meeting with former President Jimmy Carter in Havana, Cuba on March 30, 2011.

Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá’s Havana home was as modest as most of the communist island’s houses. But politically it was an oasis, a refuge from the polarized thinking about Cuba that dominates both sides of the Florida Straits.

I last visited Payá’s casa in 2003, shortly after Fidel Castro had thrown 75 of his fellow dissidents behind bars – a crackdown prompted largely by Payá’s successful effort to gather petition signatures for a constitutional referendum on democratic reform. Payá reiterated his opposition to the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba because, he said, it gave Castro a convenient excuse for his economic failures. But he also flashed a wry smile and told me, “I’m all for Americans traveling here, but please don’t think Cuba will be democratized by people coming to dance salsa and smoke cigars.”

That preference for common sense over blind ideology – the independent-minded refusal to bow to the bullying of either the Castro dictatorship or the Cuban exile lobby – is what made the 60-year-old Payá arguably Cuba’s most important dissident. It’s also what makes his death in a car crash in eastern Cuba on Sunday, July 22, all the more tragic. Payá, who was laid to rest in Havana yesterday, was a peaceful rebel, and his Gandhi-esque penchant for lawful resistance is precisely what spooked Castro so profoundly. “We’re the first non-violent force for change this island has ever known,” he told me in 2003 when so many of his dissident colleagues were imprisoned – though Castro didn’t jail Payá because he presumably feared the global outcry. “Castro can’t crush that, no matter how hard he tries.”

Payá as a result would have been a particularly important figure to have around when Castro, 85, and his younger brother Raúl, 81, who took over as Cuban President after Fidel fell ill in 2006, are gone. Few Cubans could have been more helpful to the inevitable transition to democracy: unlike the communist bureaucrats who are nervously propping up Cuba’s jaded Marxism, or the hardline Cuban exiles who are delusionally obsessed with toppling the Castro regime from Miami, Payá had actually been planting the seeds of democratic practice in the island’s civic soil.

More: Who’s Bugging Castro in Cuba?

It’s ironic that Payá died in a car, since he was best known as the engineer who bicycled to work every day as a hospital equipment technician – often shadowed by police. Payá’s family has sparked speculation about whether Sunday’s crash – which also killed a fellow member of Payá’s Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) and injured two visiting Europeans – was an accident or the result of foul play. One of the Europeans, a Spaniard who was driving the car, has told the media the crash was an accident, but Cuban exile leaders and U.S. politicians are calling for an investigation.

Whatever the circumstances of his death, Payá in life was one of the most dogged adversaries the Cuban revolution has ever faced. And much of that determination sprang from his Catholic faith, which he held as strongly as the Castros have clung to their brand of socialism. When Fidel took power in 1959, Payá was the only kid in his Havana primary school who refused to become a Communist Youth member. In high school, after openly criticizing the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he was sent to a labor camp for three years. Even so, rather than escape to Miami in the 1980 Mariel boatlift, he stayed in Cuba to work for its democratization – “This is what I am supposed to be, this is what I have to do,” he once told TIME – and he even made quixotic runs for Cuba’s National Assembly as an opposition candidate.

In 1996, Payá created his most effective instrument: the Varela Project. By 2002, after years of distributing leaflets and petitions from old mimeograph machines, it had collected far more than the requisite 10,000 signatures – which under Fidel’s 1976 Constitution legalizes a national referendum. Payá’s plebiscite would have asked for five basic human rights: free speech, free assembly, multiparty elections, broader free enterprise and the freeing of political prisoners.

Fidel of course refused to recognize the petitions. But the Varela campaign — named after 19th-century Cuban Catholic priest and independence champion Félix Varela — had established something unprecedented in communist Cuba: a broad, grassroots dissident network that could push for change on the island itself instead of from the diaspora in Florida. The Castros weren’t the only ones unsettled by that development; it also bothered many in the Cuban-American leadership. The Cuban-American community was largely supportive of Payá. But hardliners had long insisted on non-engagement with Havana, and they disparaged the idea of democratic players inside Cuba, believing that only exile heroics could challenge the Castros. Equally irksome to them was the way Payá’s movement distanced itself from the exiles and U.S. assistance, especially its rejection of the embargo, as a means of keeping Havana from labeling it as a tool of los yanquis.

Payá warned that lifting the embargo won’t produce overnight change in Cuba, but he also realized that maintaining it hasn’t worked, either – and that politically it probably helps more than hurts the Castros. As he gained international acclaim – in 2002 he won the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for human rights, and during a visit to Cuba that year, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter hailed Payá in a speech broadcast to every Cuban household – Payá’s belief that Washington should engage Cuba helped embolden more moderate Cuban-Americans. A decade later, in fact, polls show a majority of Cuban-Americans think the embargo should end. Back on the island, however, to make sure Payá didn’t embolden more Cubans, a humiliated Fidel struck back in 2003 with the mass arrests.

Still, Paya’s example has inspired more legalistic reform efforts in Cuba – including an unprecedented suit, filed against the government in 2010 by attorney Wilfredo Vallín, seeking the right to register an association of dissident lawyers. Last year a judge actually ruled that the case could proceed, and this summer an appeals court has heard oral arguments. Just as important, however, may be Payá’s example as a person of faith. In recent years Cuba’s Catholic Church has rebuilt itself after the 1959 revolution had all but dismantled it. Today the church is nothing less than the island’s first and only alternative institution to that revolution, helping Raúl carry out the capitalist reforms Cuba’s threadbare economy needs to survive – and which the Varela Project petitions had called for. The church also recently brokered the release of 115 political prisoners, including the dissidents rounded up in 2003.

More: Rendering Unto Castro

Most recently Payá had been directing a new campaign, the Heredia Project, which pushes for civil rights such as freer travel inside and outside Cuba. “We are asking for normal things that most people everywhere take for granted,” he told TIME last fall. “Nothing more or nothing less.” Even with Payá gone, the Castros will have to deal with his legacy – as was evident yesterday when Cuban police arrested, and reportedly roughed up, dozens of dissidents after Payá’s funeral mass. As Payá once insisted to me: “This is a duel between power and spirit.”