What is the legacy of deceased Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya?
Oswaldo Payá attempted to change Cuban laws through a national referendum.
By MANUEL RUEDA
Oswaldo Payá, one of Cuba’s most important dissidents died in a car crash on Sunday.
Payá’s daughter Rosa Maria, claimed that the crash was “not an accident,” and called for a thorough investigation of Oswaldo’s death.
“There was a car trying to take them off the road,” Rosa Maria told CNN en Español. “They wanted to do harm and they ended up killing my father,” she said without specifying who may have been trying to hurt the political activist.
Payá was best known for his activism around pushing for a referendum on the Cuban constitution that would guarantee citizens the right to free speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of enterprise.
Cuban law allows any initiative signed by 10,000 citizens to enter a national vote.
So Payá’s initiative, known as the Varela Project, collected 11,000 signatures, which were presented to Cuba’s National Assembly in March 2002.
Cuban authorities ignored the Varela Project, however, and in response launched their own successful referendum that declared that socialism was an “irreversible” aspect of Cuba’s constitution.
These events did not deter Payá from continuing with his work. He presented another referendum petition to Cuba’s National Assembly in 2003, for which he collected 14,000 signatures. When that did not work, Payá founded the National Dialogue, an organization meant to prepare Cuban civil society for a democratic transition. (Watch Jorge Ramos’ 2003 interview with Payá here.)
Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote about Payá in her Generation Y blog, shortly after hearing reports of his death. She described the 60-year-old activist as an “essential citizen” for the Cuban nation.
“The great lesson he leaves us is that of equanimity and pacifism and ethics above [political] differences. He leaves us with the conviction that through civic action and legality, an inclusive Cuba is much closer,” Sanchez wrote.
With an L for Liberty, Sanchez paid a small tribute to Payá. (photo: twitter.com/yoanisanchez)
In communist Cuba, Payá’s beliefs posed challenges to him from a young age. He was pulled out of the University of Havana because he was a practicing Catholic who rejected Marxism. He had to complete his military service in a labor camp on the Isle of Youth due to his critical opinions on the Cuban government.
Payá earned a technical degree at night school and eventually landed a job fixing medical equipment for the Ministry of Public Health.
But Payá was destined for political activism, and in the late 80s he founded the Christian Liberation Movement, a nonviolent opposition group that would lead the 2002 referendum petition.
Payá was harassed by Cuban government supporters, who once spray-painted a sign outside his house labeling him a “CIA agent.”
But unlike dozens of his colleagues, the Catholic leader was not thrown in jail for his political activities. Payá may have been spared because of his celebrity status [he was nominated for the Nobel peace prize 4 times] or because he declined to receive funding from foreign groups.
“He denounced Cuban groups that accepted U.S. money,” said Larry Birns, from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “There was a certain modicum of respect for him, because he didn’t accept foreign funds,” Birns told Univision News.
U.S. diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks argue that Payá’s influence in Cuban society had waned significantly by the time of his death last Sunday.
“[Payá and the members of his movement] have little contact with younger Cubans and, to the extent they have a message that is getting out, it does not appeal to that segment of society,” a cable from 2009 said.
But in her Twitter account on Monday, Yoani Sanchez posted some quotations from Cuban activists, which suggest that Payá still inspired younger Cuban dissidents.
“Oswaldo Payá was our Ghandi, his peaceful protest and his Varela Project taught my generation that there could be another horizon for Cuba,” said writer Angel Santiesteban.
“There was an intense and loud applause [at a Havana church] when his body arrived,” Sanchez tweeted.
The San Salvador del Mundo church in Havana was crowded with citizens who paid their last respects to Oswaldo Faya. (Photo: Twitter.com/YoaniSanchez)
But along with Sanchez, it will be up to them to carry on the struggle for democracy in Cuba.
(Photo: Screenshot Youtube.com/Cubamoneyproject)