I always had the dream of getting to know that worker whose speech on receiving the Sakharov prize I heard live from Hapsburg, vibrant with excitement thanks to the magic of radio. I never thought of a future post-Castro Cuba with Payá physically absent.
Much less did I imagine it on that Sunday morning of July 22, while rejoicing in our church as we concluded a week of intense work in what we call Bible School, but that afternoon when I intended to rest from physical fatigue an text message came to my mobile with the unexpected news that would take me off my normal path, just like the car had been made leave the road, the car in which I was unaware that in the eastern part of this island they were then removing the inert body of my admired Paya.
It is impressive that the rhythm of a life and of a whole nation can be so drastically altered. If someone had told me that Sunday morning in church that in barely 24 hours I would be traveling as clandestinely as possible from Villa Clara, the province of my residence, to Havana, to participate in the funerals of Oswaldo Paya Sardinas, I would not have believed it. But so it was.
Prevented from attending, in October 2011, the brief funeral tribute to the leader of the Ladies in White, Laura Pollan, due to the huge police cordon around my house, I was forced, this time, to take extreme measures to escape Villa Clara. But I especially had to do it because I woke up on the morning of the 23rd listening on a short wave broadcast from abroad to the ragged voice of Oswaldo Paya’s daughter, Rosa Maria, which reached the depths of my soul.
Not only did she confirm the death of her father, but also called into question the official version of an chance traffic accident. She was clearly that young girl who had been shown happily playing on the beach with her father in those pictures released by the regime. I also woke up to the harsh reality that it was not a nightmare, and that the news of the inconceivable death of Paya had not been a false rumor the previous day.
And I managed to undertake the sudden journey, and also arrived, although I knew that many others were arrested along different parts of the national highway, and forcibly returned to their homes, especially at the point called Aguada de Pasajeros where many opponents were caught, as was the case with my friend Javier Delgado Torna from Caibarien.
Just ten minutes before the arrival of the body the heavy-hearted crowd had been waiting hours for, and that had been dazed by the hand of God itself, I was already on the esplanade that surround the Savior of the World Parish, at Santo Tomas and Penon, in the el Cerro neighborhood, an historic site and nest of all the spiritual and political battles of the martyr.
The same church where the Paya family had celebrated many significant dates, had now become the grounds to say goodbye to the lifeless body of someone who took as paradigms Christ, Varela and Heredia Varela, claimed and in fact opened the way to change the sick and betrayed history of Cuba.
The experiences I had in this church between three in the afternoon of July 23 and the morning of 24 consolidated in me all the influence that at a distance and for so many years I had seen exercised in an epic civic project, a Movement and a Man who had the virtue of facing one of the most totalitarian regimes clinging to power the chronology of the Americas has suffered.
The scenes, so full of different emotions and feelings left no place for the physical fatigue of those who had made the long journey, and the night that would separate us from the following day, the 24th, when the burial would take place, was too short to contain both reunion and solidarity.
All of the different trends in the political opposition were present, as never before, as I had dreamed of seeing Payá in life and as so many had sought to recall if there were concrete examples as demonstrated by the manifesto “All United”, written by him in 1999 to turn his Varela project into a project of all Cuba, beyond himself or his movement, as indeed came to pass.
Far beyond his church as well, he become a bridge to change for all Cuban Catholics, Protestants, other believers, or unbelievers, because ultimately the same totalitarian power affects us all.
I cannot forget an inner strength that is impossible to describe, the same as accompanied me on the journey from Villa Clara allowing me to break the cordon of those confused State Security agents who dared to try the door of the temple when the coffin entered, and block passage to those who remained outside.
I remember in front of me seeing the freelance journalist Ignacio Estrada whose neck was detained by the burly arms of one of those agents; that’s when I fell to the floor and crawled through his legs to make my way into the enclosure literally running, surprising those guardians who vainly stretched out their tentacles to catch me when they realized I was part of the crowd that was pushing into the church, and advanced at the same rate along the crowded aisle on the left side near the alter where no one could stop me.
Once inside I applauded Paya with all my strength as part of an immense multitude for about ten minutes that could have been multiplied into ten hours if one of the bishops present hadn’t given the word about the Catholic rituals appropriate for the occasion.
A few minutes later we were already a multitude and sang with all our might the National Anthem, which at the end was followed by the cries of innumerable slogans that came together into a united and overwhelming cry of “Freedom!” A word that honors God and the country to which Paya dedicated the major efforts of his life.
We would still be shouting “Freedom!” if Paya’s widow Ofelia had not reminded us from the alter of the imperious and comprehensive need to pray and to say goodbye to the face so loved in life.
A sea of people of all political and religious persuasions then paraded before the coffin and gave their condolences to the grieving family.
5. Paya and the Catholic Church in Cuba
The Catholic Church dedicated to Payá all the honors he undoubtedly deserved. The number of lay and religious men and women present were uncountable. The church hierarchy was also present. Not only the auxiliary bishops of Havana, Bishop Alfredo Petit and Bishop Juan de Dios, also Bishop Alvaro, Bishop in Granma, where the fateful events took place, had come to Havana, after playing a key role on the previous day because of the disinformation surround the death of an extraordinary man; it was he who showed up at the hospital in Bayamo where the body of Payá was taken and made the final confirmation of the tragedy.
Personalities as relevant as Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and many others with dedicated chairs were there. The Apostolic Nunciature, at the end of the Mass celebrated by Cardinal Jaime Ortega himself on the morning of the 24th, before leaving for the funeral, delivered a note of condolence sent by the Vatican Secretariat of State, which was read to all present.
There is no denying that the family felt accompanied by its church from the very moment the rumors of his death started and I suppose until this moment. This was reiterated by Rosa Maria and Ofelia in every public statement they were allowed to make, both in the parish and in the cemetery, on behalf of the whole family.
I can not help but confess, however, I found counterproductive all the undeniable support of the Catholic hierarchy with the contradictions that in recent years they had had with Paya, demonstrable in such controversial statements in Lay Space magazine, as in the recent editorial “The Commitment to Truth” which is heard in the voice of Oswaldo himself refuting through radio interviews, and with a firmness no at odds with his unquestionable and always present Christian ethics, because he was, like other Catholics, committed to the justice of the Kingdom of Heaven and therefore logically contrary to the totalitarianism that rules in Cuba, as do people such as the Lay Catholic Dagoberto Valdes and the priest Jose Conrade, followers of a line of lay and religious people that continue the work of those who came before, Pedro Meurice, Perez Serante, up to heroes like the knight Jose Agustin, Varela, or Bishop Espada.
I myself was one of the hundreds of victims of repression during the papal visit of Benedict XVI in March, placed under house arrest in the house of a friend in Alamar under a scandalous siege by the political police, and I am still waiting for a single word of regret from the Vatican, or at least from the senior hierarchy of the Cuban Catholic Church.
I imagine the immense pain that Payá must have felt, in notable contrast to the visit of John Paul II in 1998, when if he thought about it, he had literally been thrown aside this time.
I find it very strong and contradictory that we throw aside people in life when we have at least the opportunity to spend at least one second, to greet him, and then in death we grant him every honor he was denied in life. Of course, I refer to sections of the hierarchy, not the church that Payá always loved and defended, and that until the last moment was voice and part of and which is he now a martyr of.
November 3 2012