Posted on Sunday, 07.29.12
OSWALDO PAYA | CUBAN DISSIDENT MOVEMENT
Payá's death leaves leadership gap in Cuba dissident movement that's
hard to fill
Oswaldo Payá, unquestionably the most centrist of Cuba's opposition
leaders, was also one of the movement's giants.
By Juan O. Tamayo
The death of Oswaldo Payá has left a gap in the moderate heart of the
Cuban dissident movement, which has tried for decades to figure out the
most effective way to confront the communist system and push for democracy.
Payá was unquestionably the most centrist of Cuba's opposition leaders,
a profoundly Catholic activist who believed in reconciliation and
dialogue, tried to change the system with its own rules and rejected
both Fidel Castro and the U.S. embargo.
He was also the first opposition figure to try to mobilize the Cuban
streets for change, while others focused on seeking political freedoms,
establishing civil society groups or recording and denouncing human
"His death was truly an irreparable loss, because he was the most
notable figure of the internal resistance," Havana human rights activist
Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz said of the 60-year-old Payá, killed Sunday
in a disputed car crash.
The death also recalled the struggles of a man whose victories and
failures as he tried to nurture the seeds of democracy in Cuba,
peacefully and patiently, can provide lessons to the dissidents who
A soft-spoken and unassuming engineer who worked in a state-owned
business making and repairing hospital equipment, Payá was "the
anti-Fidel," said Joe Garcia, a Miami Democrat and former executive
director of the Cuban American National Foundation.
Although a Vatican official reportedly told U.S. diplomats in 2003 that
he had urged the Cuban government to "cultivate Payá as a 'soft
oppositionist,' " government State Security agents constantly monitored
his movements and his Havana home was often marked with pro-Castro graffiti.
Payá's biggest triumph came in 2002, when his Christian Liberation
Movement and a nationwide network of supporters collected 25,000
signatures seeking free elections, freedom of expression and association
and amnesty for political prisoners in the so-called Varela Project.
He was praised by moderates who favored engaging the Castro government
in hopes of pushing it gently toward democracy, was awarded the European
Parliament's Sakharov human rights prize in 2002 and was later nominated
for the Nobel peace prize.
Payá "managed to mobilize people and unite the opposition in some ways,"
said Guillermo Fariñas, an independent journalist who won the Sakharov
Prize in 2010. Unlike Payá, Fariñas was not allowed to leave the island
to pick up his award.
But Project Varela was criticized by anti-Castro hardliners in Cuba and
in exile as too conciliatory toward the government — and was brutally
crushed by Castro.
The legislative National Assembly of People's Power never acknowledged
Payá's petition and Castro called his own referendum on the
"irrevocable" socialist character of the revolution — approved by 99.5
percent of the voters in late 2002.
Just months later, 75 dissidents, including more than 40 Project Varela
activists, were convicted in one-day trials and sentenced to up to 28
years in prison. Payá had spent three years in a hard labor camp in the
1960s but was not arrested in the 2003 crackdown.
The dissident soldiered on with the stubbornness of his faith after the
so-called Black Spring but with less success, proposing several citizen
initiatives that did not achieve the recognition or headlines of the
And although Payá criticized the U.S. embargo — he repeatedly insisted
that Cubans must fix their own problems — he also scoffed at the claim
that increased U.S. tourism and business would entice the government to
"That's an insult to the Cuban people. Changes will not be made by
tourists drinking daiquiris and mojitos, strolling through our beaches,"
Payá declared in a video interview rebroadcast this week by Miami's MEGA TV.
Payá also was critical of Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino and his
talks in 2010 with Raúl Castro, who succeeded brother Fidel in 2008. The
contacts led to the release of the last of the "Group of 75" still in
prison and other political prisoners.
"We believe Cubans should not remain mere spectators in this or any
other negotiation," he declared. "The dissident movement is much more
than an issue that government and church representatives can discuss
without listening to us."
In 2007 he joined several well-known dissidents, including Martha
Beatriz Roque and members of the Ladies in White, declaring their unity
in the struggle for peaceful change toward democracy.
But Payá and others were absent last year when a dozen other dissidents,
including Fariñas and Oscar Elias Biscet, a member of the "Group of 75,"
issued a "reaffirmation of unity" to "motivate the population to join in
a peaceful fight against the regime."
Payá was the second top leader of Cuba's dissident movement to die in
nine months. Laura Pollán, the widely respected founder and head of the
Ladies in White — female relatives of the 75 — died Nov. 14 from a heart
attack and respiratory failure.
Well-known blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote that Payá's death was "a dramatic
loss for [Cuba's] present and an irreplaceable loss for its future," and
that without him "the island is more of an orphan now."
But dissidents noted that the opposition movement has other top figures,
from veteran political activists like Roque, Biscet and Fariñas and
Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human rights and
National Reconciliation, to younger firebrands like José Daniel Ferrer
García and Pollán's successor, Berta Soler.
Payá's MCL is "very well organized and no doubt someone will succeed him
as its leader," said Biscet by phone from his home in Havana.
Catholic activist Dagoberto Valdés noted that in a sign of their unity,
opposition activists of every stripe attended Payá's wake and funeral
Mass last week at the El Salvador del Mundo church in Havana.
"In the struggle for freedom, those who fall on the road turn into
flags, into symbols of the peaceful struggle," Valdés added. "The
opposition will continue, with this new symbol of our struggle."
Elizardo Sánchez said the dissidents' own fractiousness — with scores of
factions that range from hundreds of members in key cities to little
more than two or three people in a remote town — actually helps them
remain strong despite the death of a leader like Payá.
"A shortcoming of the opposition becomes a virtue," said Sánchez.