When I learned about the death of Oswaldo Payá, a rocking-chair image came to my mind. He sat in it each time I visited his Havana house. Then another image — this one not cozy at all — quickly popped into my head: the drawn window shades.
This was how Oswaldo tried to hide us from the prying eyes of the state agent who lived next door and constantly monitored the well-known dissident. As Oswaldo swayed slowly back and forth in the chair giving off an air of composure, I tangibly felt the heaviness of his everyday life.
I remember how impressed I was by Oswaldo’s patient manners, analytical mind and compassion. The only time I saw him restless was when I delivered a personal letter written by the late Czech president Vaclav Havel. That day, I had a flight booked to depart Cuba so I thought there was not enough time to respond. Yet, Oswaldo insisted on writing a reply . “Okay, I will wait. Go ahead,” I encouraged him. But Oswaldo was a deep thinker who didn’t like to rush things.
He needed some time to compose the best letter possible. “I will get it to you later tonight,” he suggested. When I reminded him of the Castros’ agents, he shrugged off the concern. “I will get rid of them. This letter is too important to me,” he said. At the end we made a deal that we would meet in a house in a different neighborhood for the sake of our mutual safety. Later, in the shadow of the night, Oswaldo gave me his letter, obviously relieved.
Back in Prague, I put the letter directly into Havel’s hands. “I wish I could see Mr. Payá one day in Havana,” the president told me. That was a powerful moment because when I said goodbye to Oswaldo, he called after me with the sound of uplift in his voice: “Soon we will have a beer here in a free Havana. I almost taste the bitter flavor right now.”
I could not have guessed this would be the last time I’d see Oswaldo alive. A year later we talked over the phone after word came out that Fidel Castro had fallen sick. Oswaldo felt a kinship with the Czechs. We knew what daily life under communism was about, including neighbors spying on neighbors. There was no need for Oswaldo to fill me in on his life under communism. But with others, he could get frustrated. He once told me how he had to keep explaining to people from the West why Cubans didn’t vote Castro out of office. They were clueless.
Still, I also found some of Oswaldo’s beliefs a bit naive. During one interview, I told him that the Czech Communist Party was still the third most powerful in the country, holding dozens of seats in the Czech Parliament — a sad fact given the almost two decades since the Velvet Revolution brought the communist regime down. “I don’t understand how somebody can vote for the party who took away his or her freedoms,” he said honestly.
I mumbled something about the phenomenon of nostalgia. “Nostalgia for state terror?” he asked and pressed me to elaborate. I tried to explain to him that just a small group of people was subjected to the government persecution, while a majority kept a low profile to try to avoid any kind of trouble.
In the fall of 2006, Oswaldo believed that Cubans were actually raising their heads and starting to challenge Castro in big numbers. He also predicted that the Castro regime was about to collapse. The former I doubted then — and I doubt it now. Who has the courage to go against the regime empowered by guns? Especially against the paranoid and sadistic military regime of the Castros? Of course, there are some Cubans who tried to oppose Fidel, but he exiled them or cruelly let them suffer in jail.
Oswaldo Payá was among those who had the guts to stand up against the regime that harassed him for decades. A spy would, for instance, follow Oswaldo everywhere he went, staying just a few steps behind him. And he was treated like a pariah in his neighborhood. A crowd of Castro’s supporters would regularly gather in front of his home to publicly denounce him and his family and vandalize their house. He was beaten on many occasions and had to put up with threats, insults and slander.
Oswaldo never yelled back; he never even used curse words while describing his enemies to me. Maybe Oswaldo Payá was a little too naive and sometimes too meticulous, but above all he was a brave, noble man who cared about Cuban democracy and freedom. It’s more than unfortunate that both he and Havel died before they could toast to freedom in Havana together. And it’s too bad that he and I will never toast to that either.
Even so, Oswaldo’s clarion call for liberty and human rights in Cuba will be realized someday. Of this, I am sure.
Eduard Freisler is a Czech journalist who lives in New York.