A few years ago I accompanied a friend from the Basque Country to the home of Oswaldo Payá. I left him nearby so as not to call attention to ourselves, because Payá’s house was always under heavy surveillance. The Basque wanted to do an interview with him and had already arranged the appointment. It was to be two hours. We agreed I would collect him at the same place and take him directly to the airport.
When I returned the Basque was nowhere to be found. I waited half an hour. Then I began to worry. First for his person, and then for the departure of the plane and the loss of the ticket. When I’d waited an hour I began to ask where Payá’s house was. Finally I found the address and leaving the car two blocks away, I approached the house. It was close to ten at night. I knocked softly so as not to frighten him.
Payá was the one who opened the door, and after greeting him and understanding that he wasn’t afraid, I explained. He assured me the Basque had been there exactly two hours, and he had told him they would be waiting. He told me this had happened on several occasions, and later his visitors showed up at Villa Marista (headquarters of Cuban State Security). He confessed he was getting worried, and gave me his phone number to let him know as soon as I had any news of the whereabouts of the Basque.
I returned to the agreed upon corner. My friend had not arrived. It was the corner of the Children’s Hospital at the Calzada of Cerro. The words were: “I will pick you up at the corner by the hospital.” I began to calculate that the hospital had four corners, and that I should make a circuit to assure myself that he wasn’t somewhere else. When I went to the back of the hospital, right in the middle of the block, at the entrance to the Emergency Room, there on the bench the Basque was seated, legs together.
The image reminded me of my son when I would go to get him at daycare: He opened his arms and gave me a smile of total happiness. He was all nerves and told me that his legs had given out and that the light from the Emergency Room offered him a perfect hideout. He was determined to die sitting there if I didn’t appear, he told me, and we laughed.
Then he was silent for a while. Only by listening to the simple testimony of a what one person had suffered, could we be made to believe all the horror that a totalitarian government is capable of inflicting on an entire people.
We raced to the airport. Remembering Payá, I called him on the phone. He was still awake, waiting for the news. The man is safe, I said, he’s already on the plane. Thank God, Payá responded. He thanked me for the call and after he hung up I wondered how a man who had suffered so much, who had been harassed and abused on so many occasions, including depriving him of his freedom, could still have so much love to give, even to strangers.
Then I knew it was his faith: it was always his shield and his protection.
Yesterday, around for in the afternoon, the coffin with the body of Oswaldo Payá arrived at the Chapel of the Savior of the World Parish, on Peñón street in the municipality of Cerro, after having completed the formalities of forensic medicine.
The old 19th century church, recently restores, was literally packed. Some of those attending remained outside because there was no room inside, despite the many extra chairs arranged for.
On its arrival the coffin, blessed before entering the sacred enclosure, was greeted with chants which accompanied it until it was placed before the altar. Then the crowd erupted in loud applause, which continued for about ten minutes.
Family, friends and many of those present stayed to keep a vigil over him and wait for the mass to be celebrated at 8:00 in the evening, dedicated to Oswaldo Payá, a person much loved by his community.
This morning Cardinal Jaime Ortega celebrated mass in the parish in memory of Payá, praising the magnitude of his qualities as a human being, religious person, and civic citizen.
The procession left the church accompanied by a large number of religious, laypeople, friends, acquaintances, and admirers of the deceased, as well as the foreign press and a good representation of the diplomatic corps, as well as excited and curious people.
Just after half past ten the hearse arrived at Colón Cemetery, followed by private, diplomatic and rental cars, their occupants descending from them, to join the large group of us who had been waiting there since the early morning hours, forming a crowd that was over a thousand people. All walked quietly behind the car, to the chapel where there was a prayer for the dead and another blessing.
Talking with some friends who had been at the Mass at Cerro, I learned that on leaving towards the avenue, there were some shouts of Freedom, Freedom, and according to what I was told there was pushing and some shoving and arrests were made including of Antonio Rodiles and his wife and Coco Fariñas.
For the rest, the whole ceremony and internment was accompanied by religious chants, moments of silence, a lot of sun, a lot of heat, and a lot of respect for the deceased. In all, some eight hundred of us stayed until the end of the ceremony.
State security agents with their Suzuki bikes stood idly by, under the shade of the laurels. Others moved among us. Everything transpired in apparent peace and normality.
Executives and members of the Orlando Zapata Tamayo National Civic Resistance Front, raise their voices to condemn the cowardly assassination of prominent opposition leaders Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, founder of the Varela Projects and founding president of the Christian Liberation Movement. This Coalition of Coalitions shares in the grief of this Christian family, at a time when we find ourselves besieged by mobs of political police in Batey Grúa Nueva in the province of Ciego de Ávila.
The Front, a promoter of civil disobedience in Cuba, promoter of protests across the country, just today, the eve of Resistance Day, condemned the death in suspicious circumstances of this dear brother of ours and in honor of his memory and his history of struggle we are committed to continue faithful along this road.
The Orlando Zapata Tamayo National Civic Resistance Front demands that the Castro regime allow a delegation of international experts to conduct a competent and impartial investigation of this terrible and lamentable event, and the Front opposes the Cuban government being given the opportunity to undertake investigations, because it is inconceivable to give them this opportunity or to ask the perpetrators of the crime to undertake the investigation and to show the traces and proofs of the crime they themselves committed.
It would legitimize the dictatorship, it would present the assassination of Oswaldo Payá Sardis as a coincidence, an accident, more the responsibility of those who crashed their truck into the car in which our brothers Harold Cepero and Payá were traveling, than those who ordered them to do it. And we hold two people primarily responsible, the Castro regime in the persons of the brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro, uniquely and the maximally responsible for the murders of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, Wilman Villar Mendoza, Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, Juan Wilfredo Soto García, and now this terrible blow against one of the most charismatic, important and serious leaders of the Cuban opposition.
Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, the Front sends its condolences to your family and may God give you peace.
From Grúa Nueva, Jorge Luis García Pérez Antúnez, Secretary General of the Front, who will not shut up and who will not leave Cuba, now with more reasons than ever, now for you, Oswaldo, we will continue the struggle.
Notes from National Democratic Institute Public Affairs:
In September 2002, Oswaldo Payá received NDI’s 15th Annual W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award for his courageous efforts in promoting peaceful democratic change in Cuba. NDI also created a documentary about the Varela Project, entitled “Dissident: Oswaldo Payá and the Varela Project,” which has premiered in several film festivals, including the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in May 2003.
Oswaldo Payá has died and left us, this man who with his “Varela Project” taught my generation and Cuba that freedom is possible. We were very young then and our idea was to shout liberty through literary works, which, from our naivete, we thought was the most direct path to democracy, and that this was the only possible weapon with which to fight.
We have just left the parish where we were offering a last farewell to the body that accompanied him — because his spirit, as we all know, has remained with the Cuban people: his great love. We began to shout “Payá vive!” Payá lives. Our hands hurt from clapping while his coffin was carried from the entrance to the altar.
The priest had to intervene to stop this show of grief and admiration that seemed, and is, interminable. Finally he was able to start the ceremony.
As happens, the image that came to my mind was that of the Father of the Nation: Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who suffered his dying moments similarly, the final minutes in San Lorenzo and that sad and solitary road on the outskirts of Bayamo. And to make matters worse, the mysterious vagaries of the convergence not only in their ideals but in geographic space.
When the service ended we once again began to shout: Freedom, Freedom, Freedom…
His wife, devastated, went to the microphone and asked for silence as they wished to pray. Then we started to pass by the coffin. One of the first who reached it was Monseñor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. When I was able to approach the coffin I could see, in Payá’s face, the blows he suffered in the fatal fall, and also the permanent light shining in his image that will accompany him always.
At 8:00 pm we participated in the funeral. Tomorrow* at 8:00 in the morning Cardinal Jaime Ortega will offer mass. Then, it’s said, one of the two survivors will give a press conference to describe what happened. Then we will know the truth.Until then we only have suspicions and conjectures.
And anger which, hopefully, we know how to use to our advantage.
*Translator’s note: This article was just posted, but the “tomorrow” that Ángel refers to is today.
About five hundred people accompanied the body of Oswaldo Payá to his final resting place in the Colon Cemetery. Family members, activists, Ladies in White, foreign correspondents and diplomats based on the island gathered at eleven in the morning. Dozens of dissidents traveled from the central and eastern provinces to the capital in Havana to say their last goodbyes to the leader of the Christian Liberation Movement.
Many of them remained throughout the night and into the morning hours, outside the Parish of Our Saviour of the World where they kept watch on Payá’s body. Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino at eight o’clock, before the coffen left for the cemetery. Those present broke into an emotional applause as the coffin left the Catholic Church, carried through the crowd outside composed of Payá’s followers, the church’s neighbors, plainclothes police and uniformed traffic control officers.
As the funeral procession left the church, several activists were arrested, including Guillermo Fariñas who, like Payá, was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
The funeral procession moved – at high speed – along the central avenues to the city’s main cemetery, with the car windshields displaying a photo of the recently deceased government opponent. Among those present, many wore T-shirts with his face, and formed the letter L – for Liberty – with thumb and index finger. This gesture is the symbol of the Christian Liberation Movement, representing its demands for freedom.
The entire day was marked by the same emotion which, on Monday, had suffused the neighborhood parish that was home to the creator of the Varela Project. His daughter, Rosa María Payá spoke to the congregation in the church to assure them that the family will appeal to justice.
“We do not seek revenge, but we thirst for the truth,” said the visibly saddened young woman, accompanied by her two brothers. Ofelia Acevedo, Oswaldo Payá’s widow, also read a brief statement from the Christian Liberation Movement about the continuity and preservation of the work of her late husband.
The parish pews were crowded and the aisles packed, to the point that it was nearly impossible to move. Among those present were many nuns and members of the Catholic hierarchy. In the words of one of them, “Payá is being honored like a head of state, at least in the popular affection being shown to him during his farewell.”
Today, in a humble family vault, lie the remains of a man who was the most promising leader of the Cuban dissidence. Without a doubt, this is a hard blow to the country’s democratic forces, and opens many questions about the future of the opposition movement. Nevertheless, Oswaldo Payá’s funeral has been a show of unity for the country’s growing civic movements.
Crying, shaking, praying in front of his coffin, were the faces of all his fellow travelers, even those whose programs diverge significantly from those of the Christian Liberation Movement. The pain brought together in one place, and around a single figure, those who, more than once, had distanced themselves due to political and programmatic differences.
The great challenge will be to maintain the convergence achieved in these two days of formal mourning.
Throughout Oswaldo Payá’s wake and funeral an intriguing question has been making the rounds of those present. One that scrutinizes that accidental character of the incident where he lost his life, along with the young Harold Cepero, and that also resulted in injuries to two foreigners, citizens of Spain and Sweden.
While many insist on pointing to the repressive forces as the cause of the crash, others prefer to wait for the testimony of the two tourists to come to light. Meanwhile, the surveillance and threats continue, raising more doubts about what happened. However, the police investigation has just begun, and the two survivors will be key pieces in clarifying what transpired.
For now, in a small tomb in Christopher Columbus Cemetery in Havana, rests the body of a person whose peaceful struggle marked the most recent history of Cuba.
Yesterday, Sunday the 22nd of July, through a telephone call from a friend, I learned of the tragic death of the leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas in a traffic accident that occurred in Granma province.
The versions about what happened are dissimilar and will surely vary. What will not change is the loss of one of the most consistent, best known and most honored Cuban opposition figures, author of the project with the greatest impact, the Varela Project.
Payá, regardless of any differences with his project or personal leadership, will occupy a place in Cuban history for his work of more than two decades, his persistence, for his remaining in Cuba and many other things.
The greatest tribute is to continue his work, that is the fight for the democratization of our country.
No one should die before reaching their dreams of freedom. With the death of Oswaldo Payá (1952 – 2012), Cuba has suffered a dramatic loss for its present and an irreplaceable loss for its future. It was not just an exemplary man, a loving father and a fervent Catholic who stop breathing yesterday, Sunday, but also an irreplaceable citizen for our nation. His tenacity shone forth since I was a teenager, when he chose not to hide the scapulars — as so many others did — and instead publicly acknowledged his faith. In 1988 his civic responsibility was forged in the founding of the Christian Liberation Movement, and years later in the initiative known as the Varela Project.
I remember — as if it were yesterday — the image of Payá outside the National Assembly of People’s Power on that March 10, 2002. The boxes filled with over 10,000 signatures in his arms, while he delivered them to the infamous Cuban parliament. The official answer would be a legal reform, a pathetic “constitutional mummification” that would tie us “irrevocably” to the current system. But the dissident of a thousand and one battles was not dissuaded and two years later he and another group of activists presented 14,000 more signatures. With them they demanded that a referendum be called to allow freedom of association, expression, and the press, economic guarantees, and an amnesty that would free the political prisoners. With the disproportion that characterized it, Fidel Castro’s government answered with the imprisonments of the Black Spring of 2003. Over 40 members of the Christian Liberation Movement were sentenced in that fateful March.
Although he was not arrested at that time, for years Payá suffered the constant surveillance of his home, arbitrary arrests, repudiation rallies and threats. He ever missed a chance to denounce the prison conditions of some dissident, or another wrongful conviction. I never saw him break down, or yell, or insult his political opponents. The great lesson he left us is his equanimity, pacifism, putting ethics above differences, the conviction that through civic action and through legal action, an inclusive Cuba is closer to us. Rest in peace, or better still, rest released.
At five in the afternoon on July 22, the death of opposition leader and founder of the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) Oswaldo Payá was confirmed. The news started as a rumor that spread during the early hours of Sunday afternoon.
Known nationally and internationally for organizing and carrying out the Varela Project, his death at the age of 60 is a hard blow to the pro-democracy forces in Cuba. Social networks quickly did their utmost to spread the news and the hashtag #OswaldoPaya trended globally. The renowned dissident lost his life in a car accident — the facts of which are still unclear — which occurred around 1:50 pm local time.
The incident took place a few miles from the city of Bayamo in the eastern province of Granma, which is about 500 miles from Havana. Near the small town of La Gabina the car left the road and rolled until it hit a tree. It remains to be confirmed if, before the impact, it was hit by another vehicle, as claimed by several sources, or if the driver lost control, as claimed in the official version.
Payá was in the car with the dissident activist Harold Cepero who also died some hours after the accident. The two Cubans were traveling accompanied by two foreigners, the Spaniard Angel Carromero, 27, and the Swedish politician Jens Aron Modig, 27. Carromero is a lawyer and advisor to the City of Madrid, and secretary of the New Generations of the People’s Party in the Spanish capital. Modig chairs the Christian Democrat Youth League.
All were taken to the Professor Carlos Manuel Clinical Surgery Hospital in Bayamo, where hospital officials said that Oswaldo Payá was already dead when he arrived. After hours of incomplete reports, his wife Ofelia Acevedo was notified of his death through a Catholic Church source.
The two injured have been hospitalized in the same facility and, according to confirmations from El Pais newspaper, only suffered minor injuries. The entire hospital is surrounded by a heavy police operation, and it is impossible to communicate by telephone with the room where both Angel Carromero and Jens Aron Modig are being treated.
Rosa María Payá, the daughter of the deceased dissident, told several media that “they wanted to hurt” her father, “and ended up killing him.” Similar suspicions are growing among opposition figures as well, but will have to wait for the testimony of the two survivors and for the results of police investigations.
The Varela Project
In 2002 Oswaldo Payá received the European Parliament’s Sakharov prize, which was specially awarded for his work on the Varela Project. This initiative proposed a constitutional amendment under a process supported by legislation then in force on the Island. Through the Varela Project, he proposed the holding of a national referendum to allow free association, freedom of expression and of the press, called for free elections, promoted freedom to engage in business, and called for an amnesty for political prisoners.
Together with other members of the Christian Liberation Movement and activists of the banned opposition, Payá managed to present the National Assembly of People’s Power some 11,000 signatures on March 10, 2002. Two years later another 14,000 signatures were added, but the Cuban government rejected the demand for a popular referendum.
Instead, the official response was to declare the socialist character of the country’s prevailing system irrevocable, in a gesture that was popularly called the “constitutional mummification.” Surveillance and repression around Payá increased from that date, including arrests, threats and repudiation rallies in front of his house.
In March 2003, when the Black Spring occurred, about 40 members of the MLC were among the 75 defendants. Their sentences ranged from 6 to 28 years in prison on charges of violating national sovereignty. The vast majority of them had to wait to be released until 2010, when an unprecedented dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government ended with the freeing of these dissidents. Although Payá was not arrested or prosecuted, during all this time he did not cease to denounce the situation of the convicted activists.
Secularism and civility
Born in 1952 and raised in a family with a strong Catholic tradition, Oswaldo Payá had a religious upbringing. He attended a Marist Brothers school until 1961, at which time it was taken over by Fidel Castro’s government. When he was just 16 he did his military service and during that stage of his life was punished for refusing to transport a group of political prisoners. That refusal caused him to be sent to serve three years hard labor on the Isle of Pines.
On finishing this sentence he joined a parish youth group in his neighborhood of Cerro. Indeed his outstanding labor as a layperson led him to work on the process of Cuban Ecclesiastic Reflection (REC) and he served as delegate to the Cuban National Ecclesiastic Meeting (ENEC) in 1986. In parallel to his opposition activities he continued to work as a specialist in electrical equipment for a State agency. He had graduated as a telecommunications engineer.
In 1988 Payá founded the Christian Liberation Movement that quickly became one of the most important organizations of the nascent Cuban civil society. He also participated in drafting the Transitional Program to promote political change in the largest of the Antilles. From his status as a prominent leader he signed the Todos Unidos [Altogether] manifesto and served as coordinator for its rapporteur commission.
In 2009 he developed a Call for the National Dialogue and at the time of his death was championing an initiative to allow Cubans to freely enter and leave their own country. But his breakthrough as an opponent had come with the creation and dissemination of the Varela Project, an initiative that began to be developed by the MCL in 1998.
For his work he was awarded the W. Averell Harriman Prize, awarded annually by the National Democratic Institute in Washington and the Homo Homini Award of the Czech foundation People in Need. New York’s Columbia University named him an honorary Doctor of Laws and he was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize. He was received in Rome by Pope John Paul II during the same trip that took him to the European parliament ceremony for the Sakharov Prize.
On his death he left three children, Oswaldo José, Rosa María, and Reinaldo Isaías, and also his widow Ofelia Acevedo.
With the death of Oswaldo Payá the Cuban opposition loses one of its most outstanding figures in both the national and international arenas. Gone, physically, is a politician of great importance for the political transition in the island, a prominent layman in the Catholic Church, and a man who was a bridge between the Cuban diaspora and the nation.
The body of Oswaldo Payá will be transferred to Havana where there will be a wake in the parish of Cerro, the neighborhood where he lived.
Oswaldo José Payá Sardiñas. Cuban counterrevolutionary, linked to the United States. Leader of the counterrevolutionary organization The Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) and the leading advocate of the so-called Varela Project, financed from the exterior, with the active participation of the United States Interest Section in Havana (USIS).
As a part of the propaganda support from abroad he received the Andrei Sakharov Human Rights Prize from the European Parliament in 2002.
He frequently attended meetings at USIS, where he received guidance and financing for his activities. He died in an automobile accident on July 22, 2012.
The government representing the military regime has denied Cubans the universal right to travel freely for more than half a century and still denies this right without any clear prospects towards change. With the greatest cruelty, it has torn millions of Cuban families apart and it still does. Government spokesmen have speculated for months about possible immigration changes and some, as President of the National Assembly Ricardo Alarcon, justify the state of imprisonment in which they keep Cuban, saying they cannot lose the “human capital”. This expression, characteristic of slave masters, reflects the views of those who hold power in Cuba and on Cubans, whom they consider their capital, their property and do not treat them as people with dignity and rights. For the regime the people of Cuba are not citizens but servants.
If it is true that the Government will make changes to immigration policies, why don’t they inform the people which changes will take place and when? They despise the people to the extent that they don’t even respect their right to know. Or is it that the proposed changes are not the rights that we demand in The Heredia Project?
The Heredia Project or National Reunification Law for the end of discrimination against Cubans in Cuba is a citizen proposal based on the Constitution that aims, through a legal, clear and transparent platform, to ensure:
The right for all Cubans, professionals and nonprofessionals, to freely enter and leave their country, without an entry or exit permit, for as long as the person decides, without taxes, or forfeitures, or offal of property, without paying the government for each month they live abroad, paying all procedures in national currency and eliminating forever the punishment that is the “final departure” status assigned by the regime, which means banishment and exile for those choose to live outside of Cuba. We propose an end to humiliating “letters of release” as a condition to travel to doctors and other professionals.
The restoration of full citizenship rights to the Cuban Diaspora and their children as they are full Cubans, no exclusions and all restrictions and requirements to obtain permits must end, so that Cubans living outside Cuba can enter their country whenever they want and for as long as they want and live at home if they choose.
We demand an end to the humiliation, internal deportations and mistreatment of Cubans that in our own country try to escape poverty and lack of opportunities, by moving among provinces.
We demand an end to all inequalities, access limitations, and exclusions for political and ideological reasons and removal of all privations and hardships such as the right to the Internet.
While talking of possible immigration reform, the regime pursues with its full repressive forces activists who collect signatures for The Heredia Project. Some make it easier for those in power when they make echo of this deception against the people. They play along their despotism through statements, publications, conferences and spreading doctrines which call for a vote of confidence in favor of the government of Raul Castro in place of a vote of trust in favor of the people and their rights.
The conference “A Dialogue between Cubans” that begins today in the Priests House of Havana, is organized and led by those in Cuba, who not only despise internal peaceful opposition, but also deny its existence, explicitly, in their publications; they advance more and more in the tunnel of alignment with the lies of the regime and the proposed continuation of totalitarianism, the doctrine that those in power are infatuated with and defend. They are encouraging the oligarchy to continue to deny Cubans their rights. Thus, those who are privileged to have a voice and enjoy of protected spaces to associate, conspire against the true reconciliation and peace that can only be achieved if it satisfies all the rights of all Cubans, their freedom of expression and association and the right to free elections. We would continue claiming these rights even if we were along facing these maneuvers and conspiracies against popular sovereignty.
These “organizers” speak the following words: “the prospects for a relationship between Cuban immigrants and their country of origin, referencing the process of economic reforms or upgrades that have began in Cuba.” We denounce these are the same terms used by the regime to deny the full status of Cubans to those who have left our country in search of the freedom that does not exist in Cuba and to those that the regime keeps treating as banished, exactly as it treats those who currently leave Cuba under the category of “final departure/”. This category of “final departure” is used even in the latest Housing Law, issued a few months ago. What is the outlook then?
The Christian Liberation Movement in a statement issued last March 30th states: The Diaspora is Diaspora because they are Cuban exiles to whom the regime has denied their rights as much as it denies them to all Cubans. The Diaspora must not participate in this oppressive view, which is part of a fraudulent change.
Only in the context of a culture of fear and repression which the government uses to silence the people they are able to implement the painful maneuver that includes some who take political positions from the church, others from their intellectuals windows, others with economic interests and even from the Diaspora, they contribute and participate in this fraudulent change that is the project that the government clearly describes in the phrase: “changes towards more socialism.” Totalitarianism has been constant for over fifty years, but it has not destroyed the hearts of the Cubans, a regime without freedom cannot fabricate people, nor can it fabricate a church or a Diaspora in the frame of their powers and doctrines. No more despotism, doctrines, exclusive and conditioned conferences, enough deceiving maneuvers to justify and consolidate a fraudulent change, which is change without rights, which leaves most of the poor getting poorer and leaves all Cubans without freedom. Cubans in the Diaspora and those of us who live in Cuba, are one people, victims of the same oppressive regime and we have the same hope and the same claim to freedom.