Book tells the quest for freedom of Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá

Cuban activist Oswaldo Payá during an interview with the Associated Press in Havana, Cuba, in 2006.

Cuban activist Oswaldo Payá during an interview with the Associated Press in Havana, Cuba, in 2006.

AP Photo

When thousands of people took to the streets last year chanting “Freedom! in Cuba, it was one of those rare moments when the island’s citizens took matters into their own hands and became the protagonists of their own history, realizing the hopes of longtime opposition leader Oswaldo Payá , who encouraged Cubans to do the same in a 1987 leaflet criticizing the communist country’s lack of freedoms.

Payá has spent decades working and mobilizing others for this moment, including collecting signatures for a citizens’ petition to change the political system through a referendum, the Varela Project. But he didn’t live long enough to witness the July 11 protests.

On July 22, 2012, Payá, then 60 years old and Cuba’s most prominent opposition member, died in a car accident that his family and others suspect was caused by security agents. of the Cuban state.

What led Payá to his unwavering pursuit of the cause of freedom in Cuba, daring to challenge Fidel Castro’s monopoly on power, is at the heart of an English-language biography of the opposition leader published this week under the title “Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and His Bold Quest for a Free Cuba,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David E. Hoffman and published by Simon and Schuster.

“Give Me Freedom” describes Payá’s journey from a rebellious teenager who was sent to a labor camp for his Catholic beliefs to a member of the Church who tried to pressure him to become more vocal in defense rights of Cubans, eventually realizing that he had to enter politics, even if it meant going against the repressive apparatus of the Cuban state – and paying a heavy price.

The book “has been a dream for a long time,” said his daughter Rosa María Payá, herself a prominent advocate for political freedoms in Cuba after being forced into exile following her father’s death.

“The book comes out on the 10th anniversary of his assassination, but also after a paradigm shift in the history of Cuba and the way Cubans as a people, as citizens, confront this oppressive power”, she said in an interview, referring to the month of July. protests. “The path that my father paved, we see it becoming a reality.”

Hoffman, a Washington Post editorial board member and Cold War expert, offers a meticulous account of Paya’s life and beliefs, which can also be read as a historical account of the Cuban opposition movement and how from which it emerged despite the island’s lack of political space.

Hoffman told the Miami Herald that in writing the book he was guided by the question, “How can a guy who’s a medical technology technician in a hospital decide to face the world like that?” Where does someone find inspiration and courage?

In his research, he discovered that a simple belief guided Payá’s fight for freedom: “Let every person be born with rights, may God give you the rights, not Fidel,” Hoffman said. “He was a man motivated by the lessons of life in Cuba and not by sophisticated manuals.”

Payá continued to mount what was probably the biggest challenge to Castro’s legitimacy in many decades with Project Varela, an attempt to use the Cuban constitution to promote civil and political freedoms on the island. He and many members of his Christian Liberation Movement painstakingly collected, verified and submitted to the country’s National Assembly 11,020 signatures supporting the referendum petition in 2002. While Fidel Castro crushed the initiative by introducing his own amendment Constitution making socialism “irreversible” and imprisoning 75 prominent dissidents, including many members of Paya’s movement, it was a watershed moment that inspired Cubans everywhere.

The constitutional provision allowing the collection of signatures to change laws originates from the Cuban constitution of the 1940s which inexplicably survived the many reforms and changes introduced later by the socialist government. Hoffman traces how this idea came about in an insightful chapter highlighting a lesser-known character, Gustavo Gutierrez, the lawyer and politician who proposed the provision.

Hoffman also provides an important clue as to how Payá and his friends managed to keep the signatures out of reach of state security agents: they were hidden in convents by nuns. His portrayal of the conflict between Payá, a devout Catholic, and the late Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who censored government critics among the faithful to pursue a rapprochement with Castro, is among the most interesting reading passages.

But the book isn’t just the story of the Varela project or even the man behind it. It’s also the story of his family and his country and how Castro dismantled individual freedoms under the unfulfilled promise of a more equal society. Castro got his own chapter and is described as an “opportunistic politician” more concerned with power than ideology.

“The book describes in an exhaustive way the pressure, the harassment, the anxiety, the anguish that we experience as a family”, declared Rosa María Payá, recalling however that she had a happy childhood because her parents supported the weight of government. repression.

But it took a personal toll on Payá, who had “a very sweet personality,” Hoffman said. “He was under so much pressure and scrutiny that after a while he toughened up.”

With a dissecting eye, Hoffman explains how Cuban state security works: the constant harassment and surveillance, the discrediting, the sowing of divisions, the infiltration of dissident groups, and the first attempts to spot dissent before It takes root, all the lessons learned, literally, from the Stasi, the feared secret police of the former East Germany.

In a telling passage, Hoffman provides excerpts from a secret Stasi manual on how to crush “political entertainment,” strategies the book says Jacinto Valdés-Dapena, a Cuban counter-branch lieutenant spying on the Interior Ministry, learned first hand in the Stasi. – directing the Law University of Potsdam.

The book also includes revealing information about the death of Payá and Harold Cepero, a member of his movement who was in the car on the day of the accident near the eastern town of Bayamo, as well as young politicians Ángel Carromero from Spain and Aron Modig from Sweden. Hoffman obtained copies of text messages Modig sent to a friend that day. Modig previously spoke about the messages in 2013.

“Ángel says someone tried to force us off the road,” one of the text messages said.

Modig still says he doesn’t remember much of what happened because he lost consciousness after the accident. And there are “unknowns,” Hoffman said, but he believes the car crash was no accident, despite the official government version.

Carromero was blamed for the accident and sentenced to four years in prison, but was later released to return to Spain. He told the Miami Herald in 2014 that government officials forced him to confess and that the car crash was the result of an “assault” likely staged by state security agents.

“We know the car Carromero was driving was hit from behind, causing Carromero to lose control,” Hoffman said. “I believe this is an indisputable known fact. It was a deliberate decision. »

An independent investigation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights into the suspicious deaths of Payá and Cepero has been ongoing since 2013.

David E. Hoffman and Rosa María Payá will present “Give Me Liberty” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Books & Books at 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL 33134.

This story was originally published June 22, 2022 7:00 a.m.

Nora Gámez Torres is a Cuban/American and Latin American political reporter for el Nuevo Herald and the Miami Herald. She studied Journalism and Media and Communications in Havana and London. She holds a doctorate. in City Sociology, University of London. Her work has been recognized by the Florida Society of News Editors and the Society for Professional Journalists. //Nora Gámez Torres estudió periodismo y comunicación en La Habana y Londres. Hold a doctorate in sociology y desde el 2014 cubre temas cubanos para el Nuevo Herald y el Miami Herald. Also reported on the política de Estados Unidos hacia América Latina. Your work has also been recognized with awards from the Florida Society of News Editors and the Society for Professional Journalists.

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