A journalist films the trunk of the tree struck by the driver of the rental car carrying Cuban activist Oswaldo Paya near Bayamo, Cuba, Wednesday, July 25, 2012. Paya, 60, died Sunday afternoon along with another dissident, Harold Cepero Escalante, in the crash 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of the capital. Paya gained international fame as the lead organizer of the Varela Project, a signature-gathering drive asking authorities for a referendum on guaranteeing rights such as freedom of speech and assembly. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
The death of Oswaldo Payá has left a gap in the moderate heart of the Cuban dissident movement, which has tried for decades to figure out the most effective way to confront the communist system and push for democracy.
Payá was unquestionably the most centrist of Cuba’s opposition leaders, a profoundly Catholic activist who believed in reconciliation and dialogue, tried to change the system with its own rules and rejected both Fidel Castro and the U.S. embargo.
He was also the first opposition figure to try to mobilize the Cuban streets for change, while others focused on seeking political freedoms, establishing civil society groups or recording and denouncing human rights abuses.
“His death was truly an irreparable loss, because he was the most notable figure of the internal resistance,” Havana human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz said of the 60-year-old Payá, killed Sunday in a disputed car crash.
The death also recalled the struggles of a man whose victories and failures as he tried to nurture the seeds of democracy in Cuba, peacefully and patiently, can provide lessons to the dissidents who survive him.
A soft-spoken and unassuming engineer who worked in a state-owned business making and repairing hospital equipment, Payá was “the anti-Fidel,” said Joe Garcia, a Miami Democrat and former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation.
Although a Vatican official reportedly told U.S. diplomats in 2003 that he had urged the Cuban government to “cultivate Payá as a ‘soft oppositionist,’ ” government State Security agents constantly monitored his movements and his Havana home was often marked with pro-Castro graffiti.
Payá’s biggest triumph came in 2002, when his Christian Liberation Movement and a nationwide network of supporters collected 25,000 signatures seeking free elections, freedom of expression and association and amnesty for political prisoners in the so-called Varela Project.
He was praised by moderates who favored engaging the Castro government in hopes of pushing it gently toward democracy, was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov human rights prize in 2002 and was later nominated for the Nobel peace prize.
Payá “managed to mobilize people and unite the opposition in some ways,” said Guillermo Fariñas, an independent journalist who won the Sakharov Prize in 2010. Unlike Payá, Fariñas was not allowed to leave the island to pick up his award.
But Project Varela was criticized by anti-Castro hardliners in Cuba and in exile as too conciliatory toward the government — and was brutally crushed by Castro.
The legislative National Assembly of People’s Power never acknowledged Payá’s petition and Castro called his own referendum on the “irrevocable” socialist character of the revolution — approved by 99.5 percent of the voters in late 2002.
Just months later, 75 dissidents, including more than 40 Project Varela activists, were convicted in one-day trials and sentenced to up to 28 years in prison. Payá had spent three years in a hard labor camp in the 1960s but was not arrested in the 2003 crackdown.
The dissident soldiered on with the stubbornness of his faith after the so-called Black Spring but with less success, proposing several citizen initiatives that did not achieve the recognition or headlines of the Varela Project.
And although Payá criticized the U.S. embargo — he repeatedly insisted that Cubans must fix their own problems — he also scoffed at the claim that increased U.S. tourism and business would entice the government to change.
“That’s an insult to the Cuban people. Changes will not be made by tourists drinking daiquiris and mojitos, strolling through our beaches,” Payá declared in a video interview rebroadcast this week by Miami’s MEGA TV.
Payá also was critical of Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino and his talks in 2010 with Raúl Castro, who succeeded brother Fidel in 2008. The contacts led to the release of the last of the “Group of 75” still in prison and other political prisoners.
“We believe Cubans should not remain mere spectators in this or any other negotiation,” he declared. “The dissident movement is much more than an issue that government and church representatives can discuss without listening to us.”
In 2007 he joined several well-known dissidents, including Martha Beatriz Roque and members of the Ladies in White, declaring their unity in the struggle for peaceful change toward democracy.
But Payá and others were absent last year when a dozen other dissidents, including Fariñas and Oscar Elias Biscet, a member of the “Group of 75,” issued a “reaffirmation of unity” to “motivate the population to join in a peaceful fight against the regime.”
Payá was the second top leader of Cuba’s dissident movement to die in nine months. Laura Pollán, the widely respected founder and head of the Ladies in White — female relatives of the 75 — died Nov. 14 from a heart attack and respiratory failure.
Well-known blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote that Payá’s death was “a dramatic loss for [Cuba’s] present and an irreplaceable loss for its future,” and that without him “the island is more of an orphan now.”
But dissidents noted that the opposition movement has other top figures, from veteran political activists like Roque, Biscet and Fariñas and Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human rights and National Reconciliation, to younger firebrands like José Daniel Ferrer García and Pollán’s successor, Berta Soler.
Payá’s MCL is “very well organized and no doubt someone will succeed him as its leader,” said Biscet by phone from his home in Havana.
Catholic activist Dagoberto Valdés noted that in a sign of their unity, opposition activists of every stripe attended Payá’s wake and funeral Mass last week at the El Salvador del Mundo church in Havana.
“In the struggle for freedom, those who fall on the road turn into flags, into symbols of the peaceful struggle,” Valdés added. “The opposition will continue, with this new symbol of our struggle.”
Elizardo Sánchez said the dissidents’ own fractiousness — with scores of factions that range from hundreds of members in key cities to little more than two or three people in a remote town — actually helps them remain strong despite the death of a leader like Payá.
“A shortcoming of the opposition becomes a virtue,” said Sánchez.