Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and the Path That Remains to Be Taken
“Already many Cubans have discovered and soon all of them will discover that this oppression, that this imposed lie, can be overcome recognizing ourselves as brothers to conquer our rights peacefully. So there is hope.”
~ Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, Somos Liberación Havana, Cuba, July 2012.
The Cuban government spends lots of time and money on propaganda offensives at the United Nations, in addition to doing concrete harm undermining international freedom of expression standards, and some of what it spends is US taxpayer money. On June 18, 2013, for example, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) decided to add “The Life and Works of Che Guevara” to the World Registrar, and the Cuban dictatorship held a ceremony on July 19, 2013, to “celebrate” with members of Che Guevara’s family.
The current head of the Cuban National Commission is Juan Antonio Fernandez Palacios, who was formerly the Cuban delegate at the United Nations Human Rights Council where he succeeded in attacking freedom of expression. He has now delivered on getting hard currency for the Cuban government from UNESCO to preserve Che Guevara’s papers, in addition to promoting the Cuban communist ideology which is found in Che’s writings and advocates guerrilla warfare and terrorism as legitimate methods of struggle against an enemy.
Che Guevara’s legacy is one of bloodshed that led to the rise of right wing paramilitary dictatorships throughout the Americas to confront the communist guerrilla threat Che promoted. He did so across the world, and they were all crushed, with the exception of Cuba, where he took part in implanting a totalitarian dictatorship and organizing firing squads.
In a world that has been torn apart by war, who offers more hope for the future, a disciple of Mao Ze Dong or Martin Luther King Jr.?
In contrast, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas was a disciple of King, who corresponded with both Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. Unlike the Argentine revolutionary, Oswaldo’s nonviolent resistance required much more creativity and courage to confront an all powerful totalitarian state, and he offered a moral and ethical path to liberation.
Perhaps democrats and nonviolent activists should look into having the writings of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas added to the World Registrar, set up by UNESCO. In the meantime, your signature on a petition circulated by the Payá family demanding an international investigation into the circumstances surrounding his untimely 2012 death would be much appreciated. There are plenty of articles on the suspicious nature of how Oswaldo and Harold Cepero died on July 22, 2012, but there is not that much about Oswaldo’s life in English. I hope this post will remedy that somewhat.
The regime in Cuba has claimed, and continues to claim, that it is a democracy, arguing that anyone can run for office as long as he obtains the support of enough voters. Oswaldo Payá proved that this was not true in 1992 and several times afterwards. Upping the ante ten years later, Oswaldo demonstrated that the Cuban opposition had a popular base of support in the population that wanted the Cuban government to change its laws so that human rights would be respected and electoral laws reformed to allow for free and competitive elections. Thousands of signatures by Cuban citizens shook the Cuban dictatorship and may have placed Oswaldo on a kill list.
Below are highlights of Oswaldo’s activism following the founding of the Christian Liberation Movement in September of 1988.
Exposing Cuba’s Anti-Democratic Nature With the Regime’s Own Rules and Regulations
In 1992, for the first time, Oswaldo Payá made public his intention to run for the seat of deputy to the National Assembly of People’s Power, a rubber stamp organ of the Cuban government. If he were to win, he would have a national platform to speak from and be a dissenting voice in an otherwise unanimous chamber.
The response of State Security was to impede and prevent Payá from exercising his constitutional right to “be elected.” Two days before the so-called Nomination Assembly, the police detained him at home and took him into custody, parading him through the whole neighborhood to intimidate the neighbors. They took Oswaldo to a center of the “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.” There waiting for him were police members of the Cuban Communist Party who threatened him that “blood will flow if you appear in an assembly.” The Cuban Communist Party carried out the assembly under police control, only for a few minutes and with only with their followers.
It is an example of how powerful nonviolent resistance can be when combined with sound strategy. The Cuban government’s options were either to live up to their own rules and accept an opposition candidate on the ballot, ending the communist party monopoly, or ignore their own laws and deny the candidacy — exposing the arbitrary and tyrannical nature of the government.
With this one action, Oswaldo exposed the reality that the Cuban government does not follow its own electoral laws, and he underscored that Cuba was and is a lawless dictatorship.
Setting Out a Vision For a Democratic Transition in Cuba
Payá, beginning in 1992, wrote the Transitional Program, which proposed a way to transform Cuban society peacefully. In 1993, he and supporters began collecting signatures for a referendum on the Transitional Program. The July 13, 1994, 13 de Marzo tugboat massacre and the August 5, 1994, Maleconazo uprising, which stimulated an exodus in the summer of 1994, however, halted the petition drive.
In 1995, Oswaldo was one of the first to call on the United States to lift the embargo on foods and medicines without conditions and for a review of their policy towards Cuba. That year, he was also one of the five organizers of the Cuban Council, drafting the only document of unity that embodied the positions of its members.
State Security detained him and threatened him, asking him to discourage the meeting. Oswaldo refused, and they surrounded his home with state security agents until the Council was unable to be held due to repressions and the shooting down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes in international airspace.
In 1997, Oswaldo, together with 10 other members of the Christian Liberation Movement, collected hundreds of signatures in support of their candidacies for deputies in the National Assembly. It was the first time that citizens presented themselves as candidates with popular support and without being of the government. The electoral commissions did not accept the nominations, once again demonstrating how the regime fails to abide by its own laws.
In 1997, Payá presented a claim to the National Assembly of People’s Power demonstrating that the electoral law was unconstitutional and anti-sovereign and demanded its repeal and change for another democratic law.
The official press in Cuba sought to slander and defame him in order to stimulate provocations and create a cover for government attacks against him. An example of this took place just days after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York City; a group of agents and provocateurs screamed at Oswaldo on the street as he walked with his wife and two children: “They too need to be finished off with a bomb.” Nevertheless, when Oswaldo was killed in 2012, hundreds turned out for his funeral to pay their respects, despite state security harassing and detaining people.
The Varela Project
From 1996 to 1997, Oswaldo drafted the Varela Project, a campaign to reform the Cuban legal system. During the Pope’s visit to Cuba in 1998, he was closely watched and guarded by state security — but that same year he and the Christian Liberation Movement still publicly launched the Varela Project and started collecting signatures for a referendum.
In 1999, he drafted the “All United” manifesto and proposed the first meeting of the opposition, held under strong repression, which resulted in a movement of unity. Oswaldo was appointed coordinator of the “Rapporteur Committee for All United,” and in March, 2001, All United re-launched the call to collect 10,000 signatures for the referendum on the Varela Project.
On May 10, 2002, representatives of All United, led by Oswaldo, turned 11,020 signatures of electors into the National Assembly of Popular Power, in that way turning Project Varela into a bill under the prevailing Cuban Constitution. This obliged the Assembly of Popular Power to publicly discuss the Varela Project and to vote in favor or against it. Furthermore, the government was obliged to promote a public discussion of Project Varela in the mass media that it controlled (and still does).
Once again, instead of following its own rules as laid out in the Cuban government’s own laws and regulations, the regime’s response was to organize its own petition drive to make the “socialist” aspect of the current Constitution untouchable. This supposed law was presented and approved by the Assembly in violation of its own regulations, since the Varela Project by precedence should have been considered first. Then on July 5, 2002, the Assembly “indefinitely” suspended its ordinary session to avoid discussing the Varela Project. The regime also responded with acts of repression and intransigence against members of the civic, nonviolent movement — but project Varela organizers continued to collect signatures and the civic movement grew.
The thousands of signatures gathered catches the attention of the international community, because it demonstrates that the Cuban civic opposition has a popular base of support.
Moving into the 2000s, several organizations recognized Oswaldo Payá as a fighter for democracy and the rights of citizens. The National Democratic Institute of the United States, for example, in 2002 awarded him the Averell Harriman prize in the Organization of American States in Washington, DC, in recognition of his work with the Varela Project. Czech President Vaclav Havel launched a campaign to support Oswaldo’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent efforts towards freedom and democracy in Cuba. Oswaldo was nominated on four occasions. In October 2002, the European Parliament awarded him the Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Members of the European Union, led by Havel and Aznar pressured the Cuban government into allowing Oswaldo to travel to Europe to collect the Sakharov Prize. In December of 2002, they granted him permission to travel to the ceremonies in Strasbourg, France, but not before attacking his home and leaving death threats there.
Oswaldo did travel to Strasbourg, and on December 17, 2002, he accepted the Sakharov Prize. In the course of a twenty minute speech, he outlined his nonviolent political philosophy.
The first victory we can claim is that our hearts are free of hatred. Hence we say to those who persecute us and who try to dominate us: “You are my brother. I do not hate you, but you are not going to dominate me by fear. I do not wish to impose my truth, nor do I wish you to impose yours on me. We are going to seek the truth together.” This is the liberation which we are proclaiming.
Oswaldo traveled across Europe, the United States, and Latin America meeting world leaders and representing the nonviolent civic movement in Cuba. He received an audience with His Holiness Pope John Paul II, President Aznar in Spain, and Havel in the Czech Republic, along with the Prime Minister of Slovakia and the Secretary of State of the United States, Colin Powell, in Washington, DC. He visited Mexico and met with President Fox, and in his final stop was the Dominican Republic, where he was received by President Mejías.
He returned home to a warm welcome in February of 2003 with a large crowd of families, friends, and international media waiting for him at the airport.
Black Spring Crackdown
The Castro regime responded on March 18, 2003, with the beginning of the Black Cuban Spring. Over a 100 activists were detained and seventy-five were sentenced to prison in show trials with sentences ranging from twelve years up to twenty-eight years in prison. More than forty of the imprisoned activists had worked on the Varela Project.
The Cuban government announced, at the time, that the dissident movement had been destroyed. However, the remaining activists who were still free continued to gather signatures, and Oswaldo turned in another 14,384 petition signatures on October 5, 2003. Furthermore, the wives, sisters, and daughters of the activists who had been detained and imprisoned organized themselves into the Ladies in White. A movement that sought the freedom of their loved ones and organized regular marches through the streets of Cuba, despite regime organized violence upon them.
Oswaldo would refocus his efforts on campaigning for the freedom of these prisoners of conscience. It took over eight years, but the last of the group of the 75 were eventually released. Many were driven into exile but a core group remains in Cuba and are still defiant. Others lost their lives defending human rights and dignity by gathering signatures for the Varela Project, such as Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died on hunger strike on February 23, 2010.
Oswaldo continued defending human rights with well thought out projects demanding specific rights like the Heredia Project — it campaigned for Cubans to have the freedom to travel inside and outside of Cuba — and The People’s Path in 2011, which sought to lay the framework for a nonviolent democratic transition.
At the same time, Oswaldo in April 2012 denounced the campaign to marginalize the democratic opposition and the Cuban government’s efforts, along with unscrupulous allies, to carry out a fraudulent change at the expense of the freedom of the Cuban people.
On July 22, 2012, while heading to Santiago de Cuba in a car with Harold Cepero and two international youth leaders, on a solidarity visit, another car struck theirs. The end result was that both Harold and Oswaldo died in Bayamo, Cuba.
The Cuban government attempted to engage in a cover up and invented a story that did not line up with the known facts. It is for that reason that the victims’ families are demanding an international investigation to learn the truth of what happened.
Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas was 60 years old at the time of his death. He had spent his entire adult life in Cuba in a struggle for Cuba’s freedom. Oswaldo’s life is an example of Mohandas Gandhi’s epigram: “Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment, full effort is full victory.”
The People’s path remains to be taken, but the surviving members of the Christian Liberation Movement have reorganized and are building upon the groundwork laid by Oswaldo for the path to a nonviolent transition in Cuba.