Oswaldo Payá was a patient man. That is an essential quality for anyone who wants change in Cuba. But those who knew him never doubted that his civility and patience blended with an unshakeable determination to fight repression and build freedoms in Cuba.
Between 2001 and 2004 my wife and I met Oswaldo, his wife, Ofelia, and his family frequently during times of both hope and despair. Quietly and determined he met triumph and disaster with a fortitude that knows it has right on its side.
He lived as an ordinary Cuban, working for the state, fixing medical equipment in hospitals, using state schools and institutions for his family as is the Cuban way. His political activities, meeting visitors, diplomats and journalists could never interfere with his day job. And his personality and discipline were deep-rooted in religion.
He called his “movement” one for Christian Liberation. He never contemplated leaving Cuba even when his name became well-known and the mobs were shrieking outside his home, daubing its walls with blood or mailing him dog excrement.
The life of a member of the opposition in contemporary Cuba tests patience. Many have died in the cause. Many have fled. Many have turned apathetic believing that nothing can be done. Oswaldo dared to think outside the drab conformity of organized thought, sycophantic media and the panoply of controls. Oswaldo saw the complexity of the Cuban situation and refused to indulge in sound-bite politics or cheap promises which ignored the legacy of the revolution. He rode the waves of rival dissident wrath and envy, government informers, and media insults.
Oswaldo’s qualities went beyond patience. He was a good listener and an effective persuader. The Varela Project, named typically after a humble Cuban priest, will be Oswaldo’s continuing achievement. He chose in Felix Varela a hero to Cubans from way back in history, someone whose legacy even Raúl Castro has praised. Oswaldo’s sharp intelligence saw that one way to wrong-foot the Cuban government was to work within their own system.
He recognized that the Cuban constitution provided one small chink for real democracy — a petition with 10,000 signatures must be considered by the National Assembly. He knew the government would disallow many over technicalities so he secured well over 20,000. To do this, he built a nationwide network calling for greater openness in Cuba — the first since the revolution. In Cuba that risks a lot, in some cases everything. But they did it for Payá.
Oswaldo received international plaudits and met world leaders. But his commitment to Cuba remained undiminished. He wrote a manifesto promoting rights of private property and highlighting the absurdity of a controlled media without laws guaranteeing freedom of expression. He supported continuing free education and healthcare, called on all Cubans to build a freer society without foreign influence and for Christianity to be reincorporated in the political and economic process — the type of society he wanted for his own family.
Payá died at a time when a consensus has been built for major change in Cuba. The government, timid and fearful of the effects of freedoms, is not responding adequately. Loyalty to the gerontocracy of the Cuban revolution still comes before the hopes and aspiration of Cuban youth.
When asked to define how he differed from the government Payá replied,
“Socialism or death? We say Freedom and Life. That defines our program.” To achieve that will require patience but in Oswaldo Payá many Cubans will continue to see the model of a peaceful, determined, fighter for noble causes. A man who lived all but seven years of his life under the revolution but one whose social and religious conscience was alive and well to the end. Don’t expect the tributes to flow from inside Cuba. Many Cubans are too afraid or too numbed to speak. Due to government information controls, many have never heard of Oswaldo Payá .
Time will change that. The church has begun to catch up with Payá, one of its most distinguished members. Other Cubans will one day catch up with his message of peace, optimism and tolerance. Patience.
Paul Hare is a former British ambassador to Cuba and now teaches international relations at Boston University.