A Visit to Oswaldo Payá / Ángel Santiesteban

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.

Ángel Santiesteban-Prats

July 24 2012