If there is something Rosa María Payá Acevedo remembers perfectly it is having been raised in a home where every member of the family could express their ideas and thoughts openly.
Gags were not allowed; Christian values were welcome.
In that atmosphere — contrary to the zero-tolerance policy imposed by the Cuban government — was raised the daughter of the well-respected late Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, founder of the Movimiento Cristiano de Liberación (Christian Liberation Movement; MCL, for its Spanish acronym).
Born in Havana on Jan. 10, 1989, Payá Acevedo has turned into the most busy and visible face of the MCL. Her active role and leadership gained force recently after the automobile crash that killed her father and Harold Cepero, a good friend of the family, in Bayamo on July 22, 2012.
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She blames the Cuban State Security agents for her father’s death and has called for an independent investigation. She is now in Miami as part of an international trip to spread the message that Cubans need democracy and unity of purpose.
“We need to push together,’’ Payá declared last week during her first formal appearance at the University of Miami. “It is time to push in the same direction.”
Her Miami visit follows that of Havana journalist and blogger Yoani Sánchez, who spent several days in the capital of Cuban exiles. Like Sánchez, the Cuban government had been denying Payá Acevedo permission to travel abroad until February, a month after a reform of the island’s migration system removed the requirement for the much hated “exit permit.”
With her calm voice and serene but decisive demeanor, Payá Acevedo is, at age 24, one of the most respected voices of the new Cuban internal dissident movement.
She is the second of three siblings — (Oswaldo, 25, and Reinaldo, 21) — and the only daughter of a fervently Catholic and exemplary married couple. Her father registered at the University of Havana to major in physics, but, after speaking openly about his religious beliefs and his rejection of Marxism, he had to abandon his studies. He eventually went to night school to study telecommunications. Her mother, Ofelia, was always with her husband since the early days of the MCL, in 1988.
Payá Acevedo learned the rigors of a Cuba that barely survived the tough economic era known as Special Period following the collapse of the former Soviet Union. She was only 12 years old when the European Parliament honored her father with the prestigious 2002 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. She had yet to become a teenager when, every morning, her house would have its facade painted with government slogans carrying messages such as “Payá: CIA agent.”
Persistent and careful with details, Payá Acevedo — like her father — studied physics at the University of Havana, where she graduated with high grades in 2011.
Yet the fact that she was the daughter of an opposition couple turned out to be uncomfortable for the Castro brothers’ government and this reality finally caught up with her.
Since then, she has been the target of numerous obstacles from Cuban authorities. To this day, she has been unable to obtain a job in a country where virtually all sectors are controlled by the government. In December, she was denied permission to take part in an academic program in Chile shortly before the migration reforms began.
She had planned to attend an International Conference on Politics Theory and Public Action at the University of Miguel de Cervantes from Jan. 8 to 15.
Payá Acevedo said that she had a Chilean visa and had complied with all the rules of the law to receive a final exit permit in Havana.
Yet the government denial was perhaps the expected blow due to her acute criticism and bold statements on the state of freedoms on the island. However, the repression and the threats against her and her family have not undermined her determination and dignity.
Recently Payá Acevedo denounced that the Cuban government was arresting peaceful dissidents and human rights activists who collected signatures to support two MCL initiatives seeking more openness in the country.
One of those initiatives is a bill on National Reunion also known as the Heredia Project, a proposal to allow Cubans to travel freely. The other, known as The Path of the People, asks for the release of political prisoners, the reinstatement of basic freedoms and to call for a Constitutional Assembly.
In the middle of February, Cuban authorities allowed Payá Acevedo to travel temporarily to Spain. From there, she went to Switzerland to attend a human rights congress. The tour continued through other countries in Europe and to the United States.
Friendly and determined to uncover the truth behind her father’s and Cepero’s deaths, Payá Acevedo not only has gradually become a fighter for the rights of all Cubans but her contribution has also been focused on opening more doors to exchange viewpoints.
“There are already enough Russias and Chinas in the world,” Payá said. “We don’t want that future for our island.”