Payá, Cepero’s human-rights legacy in Cuba

This week marks six months since the death of Cuban pro-democracy leaders Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero in Cuba. It also marks the 33rd birthday of Harold.

On behalf of all of those who called Oswaldo and Harold friends and heroes, we are called to humbly honor their memory and ensure we never forget their legacy. They were both personal heroes of mine and, for many of us at Roots of Hope, true giants among men and individuals who deeply inspired us through their living example of courage, compassion, hope and peace.

I met Oswaldo on my very first trip to Cuba nine years ago — to a great extent, I went in search of him, to meet this incredibly inspiring figure and know he was real.

I feel fortunate to have seen him several times after that fateful trip that changed my life forever. He was an incredible source of inspiration then — and still is now. Oswaldo was a humble man and showed me there was real power in humility and compassion, even when you feel you’re being persecuted.

No matter how difficult life got for him and his family, he had an undying sense of hope and perseverance that fueled the fire of his movement, of his followers and of countless others who believed in the unequivocal “power of the powerless.” In leading the Christian Liberation Movement and spearheading their signature petition campaign, the Varela Project, Oswaldo proved that an ever-growing number of Cubans were not only ready for change — they were determined to achieve it.

Although intimidation tactics were consistently used against him and his family, Oswaldo never let that deter him from working toward achieving his goal of a thriving civil society taking root in Cuba.

Harold was both a hero and a brother — a friend whose brotherly love and solidarity only grew stronger with distance and time.

I first learned of Harold after he risked it all to simply stand up for what he believed in — risking his career, livelihood, and even his life. When threatened with expulsion from his university for being a proud signatory of the Varela Project, Harold courageously stood by his convictions, willing to forgo his degree in order to stand up for his beliefs.

But he didn’t stop there; he took it a step further by sharing his story with others so that they, too, would know that denying what you believe in is a greater punishment than anything that could be done to you for defending your beliefs.

To a great extent, it was his peer example, his sacrifice, his courage and his unfaltering commitment that drove me to go back to Cuba again and again. Like any good friend, time was no object to him. No matter how much time passed, we picked up right where we left off.

My favorite memories of Harold were of pontificating about family and faith, love and loss and his passion for baseball and the Beatles wandering through the sugarcane fields of his beloved Ciego de Avila, or walking along the weathered limestone seawalls of the Malecon in Havana. With little to his name, he was also one of the most thoughtful and giving individuals I knew.

Thanks to him, my closet is full of memorabilia of the Cuban baseball team “Industriales,” after I shared with him the fact that they were my grandfather’s favorite baseball team.

Harold also had an overwhelming sense of peace and it was contagious. I’ve never really understood suffering. My faith gives me some context to understand it, but I’ve always quarreled with its significance — and one of my last memories with Harold was talking about what suffering meant to him.

A few months later, Harold sent me a parting gift through a mutual friend. It was an old LP/record album (from the 1960s or ’70s), which included two songs, Imagine and Let It Be performed by John Lennon. I’ve been playing these songs again and again ever since I heard the news and still can’t make sense of this tragedy but I’m comforted by the image of him cloaked in Mother Mary’s arms. I can “imagine” him watching over us now as he “whispers words of wisdom” to bring us some sort of peace.

Harold dedicated his entire life to spreading love, hope and peace. He, like Oswaldo, inspired the Cuban people to take ownership of their lives. Both Oswaldo and Harold were dreamers. They dreamed of a day when the Cuban people could become the authors of their own futures and labored with unending love to realize it. Now it’s up to us to ensure their memory doesn’t die and to make their dreams a reality.

Felice Gorordo is co-founder of Roots of Hope, an international nonprofit focused on empowering youth in Cuba.

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