Oswaldo Payá died one year ago today. I find it difficult to remember that tragic event because I resist the thought that it happened.
How can I write about those days without feeling my heart wrung by the pain produced by the violent departure of Oswaldo and and his colleague Harold Cepero?
“Let’s meet again on Sunday afternoon,” were the last words I exchanged with Oswaldo two days before his death. while I helped to evacuate — as discreetly as possible — some leaders of the Holguín Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), the organization Oswaldo founded.
About Harold I only remember how frazzled we were on that Friday, when we had to pick up — at various places in Havana — the men who had come from Holguín for a reunion. Despite the many plans we made to ensure a successful gathering, something always went wrong.
That fateful Sunday I was working in a friend’s shop when the cell phone rang. It was Oswaldo’s wife, Ofelita, who informed me that he was dead. I ran home to get my wife and rushed to a house in Havana’s Cerro district where other friends had gathered.
They confirmed to me what until that moment I hoped might not be true. I embraced one of those friends and let loose the pain I felt inside.
The arrival of Ofelita and her children from the airport brought me back to reality. Their futile effort to travel as soon as possible to the site of the events left me no other option than dealing head-on with the situation.
Rosa, Payá’s daughter, and her mother told me about phone calls from Regis Iglesias, MCL’S spokesman, and about their own attempts at calling Oswaldo’s cell phone and about the confirmation of Oswaldo’s death in a traffic accident. At the time, there had been no confirmation of Harold’s death because he was said to be in a hospital.
Phone calls continued to arrive, as well as text messages. “We were rammed from behind and shoved off the road,” one message said. It had not been an accident. It had been a premeditated attack and the two friends who traveled with them had been detained.
The existence of those messages, which proved the homicidal nature of the events, was confirmed by friends in Spain and Sweden, the home countries of other occupants of the car. There was no possible doubt. The Cuban regime had murdered Oswaldo and Harold.
The phone did not stop ringing all night long, with questions from the media and condolences from friends and members of the movement. It was an interminable night.
On Monday morning, another colleague and I went to the Colon Cemetery to arrange for the burial. Oswaldo’s body was brought to Havana.
Followed and watched all the time by the political police, we are able to make the arrangements. On the day of the funeral mass, after an hours-long wait, Oswaldo’s body was brought into the church, the same place where he made a commitment to take up Jesus’ cross and follow him. There was a burst of applause, shouts of “Long live the Varela Project!” Hundreds of people filled the church. Traffic along the surrounding streets was halted by the massive crowds.
The procession past Oswaldo’s coffin continued for a long time. Mourners expressed their condolences to the family. Where did so many people come from?
Past the coffin walked not only members of the opposition and parishioners of the church where Oswaldo was so well known. Past the coffin walked his neighbors, his colleagues, people who, out of fear, never approached Oswaldo or ignored his friendly greeting. They went there to show their respect for a man who was more than a hope.
A final mass was held on the day of the funeral. Despite the eaarly hour, the church was full. Days later, a friend told me that several thousand people went through the church.
It was the most memorable mass I’ve ever attended, a physical farewell to a man who in the past 25 years I had admired and respected as if he were my father. It was a final challenge and a final opportunity to be with him. At the end, we read a statement of commitment to, and continuity for, our peaceful struggle to free our homeland.
At the cemetery, hundreds of people are waiting for the coffin and a loud ovation greeted it. We walked to the gravesite, where we deposited not the body of Oswaldo Payá but a seed that will sprout, grow and bring the fruits of freedom for which he gave his life.
Ernesto “Freddy” Martini has been a member of the Christian Liberation Movement since 1988 and a member of the MCL’s Coordinating Council since 1998. He has found exile in Miami.