CubaNews / May 2003
By Larry Luxner
It isn’t hard to find Oswaldo Paya’s house. Located along Calle Peńon in Havana’s crumbling Cerro district, it’s the one under constant surveillance by the not-so-subtle secret police stationed just across the street.
The agents, watching from park benches, telephone booths and parked cars, take note of everyone entering or leaving the Payá residence. Less obvious are the video cameras that monitor the area 24 hours a day, looking for anything suspicious.
In the meantime, Payá’s phone is tapped, his mail is opened, his house is bugged, and at least twice in the last few months, death threats have been scrawled on his front door.
The intimidation has clearly taken its toll on the Catholic human rights activist.
“I can’t say that I sleep in peace,” he told CubaNews in an interview last month. “Sometimes, I ride my bicycle to work and state security follows me with microphones to harass me. They can detain me at any moment.”
Almost unheard of just a few years ago, Payá is today the most celebrated dissident in Cuba. Founder of the Varela Project, the 51-year-old engineer has received the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, as well as the National Democratic Institute’s 15th Annual W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award.
He’s been nominated for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize by another one-time dissident, former Czech President Vaclav Havel.
Yet relatively few Cubans have heard of the Varela Project — a peaceful movement that draws upon a provision in the Cuban constitution enabling citizens to introduce legislation when accompanied by 10,000 signatures.
Last May, Payá and other Varela organizers submitted 11,020 signatures to the National Assembly. During his visit to Havana, former President Jimmy Carter recognized the Varela Project on national TV — the first time that the Cuban people openly heard mention of the signature campaign.
However, the Cuban government ignored the petition drive and then started cracking down on those involved. In the last two months, the Castro regime has tried, convicted and sentenced in secret trials more than 80 journalists, human rights activists and independent trade union members. At least 53 of them were Varela Project organizers. “
At the trial of José Daniel Ferrer, one of our activists in Santiago de Cuba, the prosecutor asked for the death penalty, but the tribunal didn’t accept it and condemned him to 25 years in prison. His brother, Luís Enrique Ferrer, was sentenced to 28 years,” said Payá, noting that it’s a “miracle” that he hasn’t been thrown in prison yet.
State-sanctioned harassment is nothing new for Payá, who grew up in Cerro with his parents and seven brothers and sisters, all of whom were Catholics. The barrio, once noted for its aristocratic mansions, is today home to a largely poor, mestizo population. “
My family was never associated with the Batista regime, nor were we rich,” he told us. “My father worked in his small business 16 hours a day. When the so-called revolution triumphed, we continued being active and public Christians. We never demonstrated sympathy for the government, and the regime demands unconditional support.”
Imprisoned at the age of 17 for openly criticizing the government, Payá was influenced by the 1968 democratic opening in Czechoslovakia, known as the “Prague Spring.” In 1988, he founded the Christian Liberation Movement — “a non-confessional but inspirational movement” that seeks to achieve democracy in Cuba through peaceful, nonviolent means.
Eight years later, Payá and several other activists conceived the Varela Project and launched it in January 1998, during Pope John Paul II’s widely publicized visit to Cuba.
The Varela Project, named after 19th-century Cuban priest Félix Varela, calls for a referendum on civil and political rights. Its main provisions demand:
* the right of free association according to the interests and ideas of Cuba’s citizens, with respect to the principles of pluralism and diversity of ideas in society.
* a law guaranteeing freedom of speech and freedom of the press, to take effect within 60 days of the referendum’s passage.
* amnesty for all political prisoners, to take effect within 30 days of the referendum.
* amendments guaranteeing citizens the right to form private enterprises — either individuals or cooperatives — for products and services, to take effect within 60 days of the referendum.
*a law guaranteeing voters and candidates the right to assemble — with no condition other than respect for public order — for the purpose of discussing their ideas. All candidates would have equal access to the media.
On May 9, 2001, activists delivered to the National Assembly in Havana boxes containing printouts of the 11,020 names, addresses and ID numbers, along with the original pages on which Cuban citizens actually endorsed the Varela Project.
Payá said that after Carter’s visit, he and his friends collected thousands of additional signatures, but that many of those new signatures were confiscated.
“To sign the Varela Project is an act of heroism, especially for someone in Guantánamo or Santiago de Cuba who has to travel to Havana,” he said. “Some of these people have been expelled from their jobs, others from the university. Many of them have been visited and intimidated.
“For example, Idelfonso Marrero [a 62-year-old Havana resident] signed the Varela Project and also collected some signatures. He was taken by car to the police station, where they threatened him unless he signed a document discrediting me. It’s the second time this has happened to him.”
The Varela Project was later disqualified by the National Assembly’s Commission of Legal and Constitutional Affairs as having no merit.
But it clearly alarmed Fidel Castro, because within a few months of Carter’s visit, the government organized a massive drive, coercing over nine million people to sign a petition changing the constitution to make socialism Cuba’s permanent and irrevocable system of government. People who refused to sign were threatened with expulsion from their jobs, arrest or worse.
“The regime reacted with panic in order to intimidate the people, because there’s a huge contradiction between the lack of rights and the necessity to survive,” said Payá.
On the night of Sept. 27, 2002, unknown as-sailants threw red paint on Payá’s front door. The paint seeped into the house and caused extensive damage. Then, on Dec. 13, he said, “they tied a cable to my door from the outside so I couldn’t get out, and they put up signs in my front yard with death threats, and the flag of Alpha 66 [a Miami exile group dedicated to overthrowing Castro by force]. This was the day before I went to Europe.”
Payá traveled to France to receive his Sakharov Prize, but also met with Secretary of State Colin Powell and Housing Secretary Mel Martínez in Washington, as well as Cuban exiles in Miami and officials in Spain, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic before returning to Havana on May 2.
Payá spent less than 48 hours in Miami — surrounded by a security apparatus that prevented open meetings and interviews — yet his stop in South Florida sparked outrage among lawmakers like Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart (R-FL), who refused to meet with him.
Payá’s visit was also opposed by various exile groups such as Unidad Cubana, Junta Patriótica Cubana and the Cuban Liberty Council, which took out a full-page advertisement in Miami’s Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald accusing Payá of working with the dictatorship rather than fighting it altogether.
On the other hand, the Cuban American National Foundation decided to back Payá.
"There are some people who have campaigned against me in Miami, but not a lot — just a few who don’t represent the majority of Miami’s Cuban community,” Payá explained. “These people are allied with the Cuban government, even though they say they’re enemies of Castro.”
Asked why Castro hasn’t thrown him in jail yet, Payá hesitated.
“I can’t explain why the government does or doesn’t do things. You journalists are free to do that. What I can explain are the facts. Cuba needs changes, and the regime doesn’t want any change. Freedom of expression is incompatible with the personal power of the president and the oligarchy which has enjoyed complete power up until now.”
The fact that so many people have signed his petition, said Payá, “is a sign that many Cubans have lost fear, and so the regime is now afraid.” But he still must battle the little policeman inside the heads of ordinary Cubans who have come to accept the status quo.
“Is it a crime to have a laptop? Is it a crime to write your opinion?” he asked. “The reality is that many Cubans accept the moral code which the government imposes, that what’s a human right for you is a crime for me. We call this the extención de la dictadura — the extension of the dictatorship.”
Despite the arrest and imprisonment of so many of his closest friends, Payá says he plans to present a new batch of signatures to the National Assembly when the time is right.
“Many militants of the Communist Party have expressed interest in what we’re doing, but haven’t actually signed the petition because they’d be seen as traitors,” he said, insisting that Protestants, Catholics, Jews, evangelists of every domination and even atheists have signed the Varela Project.
Payá, who has never allied himself too strongly with Miami’s Cuban exile community, insists that he has never received a penny from the Bush administration, nor is he a regular visitor at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana — a fact which may have saved him from arrest during the recent crackdown.
Payá has no business card, no Internet access, no secretary and no office. “We have to work in our own houses. For many years, our papers were kept under our beds hidden in nylon bags, in case we had to leave quickly.”
Meanwhile, Payá has managed to keep his job at the Ministry of Health, where he services anesthetic and respiratory equipment.
“I am one of the few, if not the only dissident leader, who still works,” he said. “Even though I’m watched, I love my work and have great relations with my coworkers.”
He also has generally cordial relations with other leading dissidents, though when asked about Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, Payá said only that “we know each other. I can’t say that we have an alliance. Elizardo has signed our petition but he’s not active in the project.”
When asked how long the struggle might take, Payá said the Varela Project was a battle between power and spirit, and that spirit would eventually win out.
“Most Cubans live under great restrictions, in this state of no rights,” he said. “The regime has established a culture of fear in which neutrality doesn’t exist. If you’re not a fidelista, you’re a gusano [worm], and we were never fidelistas.”
The harassment has been particularly difficult for Payá’s wife, Ofelia, and his three children, Oswaldo José, 15, Rosa María, 14, and Reynaldo Isaias, 11.
“My kids are very brave,” said Payá, noting that he has one brother in Miami and three in Madrid. “Our family was always watched and monitored, but we’ve decided not to leave Cuba, even though the government would love for me to leave.”
In the meantime, the activist says he takes nothing for granted, and is kept going only by his faith and his belief that democracy will one day come to Cuba.
“I don’t feel protected by any power in this world or by fame,” he said. “I have confidence only in God. I live or die in his hands.”