On July 26, 1953, rebels led by Fidel Castro attacked the Moncada army barracks in the city of Santiago marking the beginning of what many Cubans consider the start of the darkest period in the island’s history. An everlasting nightmare.
Since that day, many Cubans have died or been executed fighting for freedom and justice. On Sunday, the founder of the Varela Project, Oswaldo Payá, died in a car accident in eastern Cuba along with student leader Harold Cepero, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Camaguey who was expelled with 16 other students for signing a letter asking for freedom of expression.
Like in the death of Laura Pollan, founder of Cuba’s Ladies in White, there is speculation that the Cuban government had something to do in Payá’s death. During an interview in 2006 with journalist Duncan Campbell of El Guardian, Payá said that Cuban officials had informed him that they were going to kill him. According to Payá this was one of many threats he had received since founding his organization, the Christian Liberation Movement.
I had the honor of meeting Payá for the first time when he came to Miami to talk to Cuban-American leaders in an attempt to gain more support for his Varela Project. I was struck by his soft spoken demeanor and kindness.
The reaction in Miami was mixed. Not all Cuban exiles supported Payá’s effort of amending Cuba’s 1997 constitution or lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Payá was somewhat taken back by some of the criticism he received.
Still, Payá continued to enjoy broad moral support from democratic leaders around the world and within the Cuban-American community in South Florida. He was respected for his efforts of trying to bring freedom and liberty to Cubans in a very peaceful way.
When he founded the Projecto Varela
, named after Cuban patriot, Catholic priest and 19th-century independence leader Father Felix Varela, the project’s main purpose was to amend the Cuban constitution under article 88, which allowed Cuban citizens to propose changes by collecting at least 10,000 signatures supporting democratic changes and free markets. Payá and his group collected more than 11,000 signatures in the first round and presented their proposal to the Cuban National Assembly.
It called for democratic political reforms allowing freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free elections, and freedom to start a private business and amnesty for all political prisoners.
The Cuban government accused Payá and his followers of forcing people to sign their proposal. Cuba’s foreign ministry issued a statement which said that the Varela Project was part of a strategy of subversion against Cuba that had been conceived, financed and directed by the United States and its representative to Cuba, Ambassador James Cason, now the mayor of Coral Gables. Payá’s proposal was never taken up by the assembly.
The last time I met Payá was four months ago during my trip to Cuba for Pope Benedict’s visit. Payá came to Havana’s Cathedral to hear the mass given by Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski. Payá stood quietly and listened to Wenski’s courageous sermon calling for the very same freedoms that Payá’s project called for. It was a very moving moment.
After the mass I had the opportunity to briefly meet with him and talk about the future. He told me that like most Cubans he was mentally tired. However, he was prepared to continue to fight for Cuba’s freedom at all cost.
Like many Cubans who have given their lives to see Cuba free from the shackles of a totalitarian regime, Oswaldo Payá will always be remembered for the love of his country. For his tireless efforts to give voice to those who have been silenced by the ruthless dictatorship of the Castro brothers. Cubans inside and outside the island will continue his efforts to free Cuba. Payá’s name will never be forgotten — he will go down in future history books of Cuba as a patriot and leader who spoke out against the atrocities committed by Castro and his cronies. Andy Gomez is special assistant for international affairs and senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies.