Sunday, January 20, 2013

Martyred Prophets of Nonviolence: Martin Luther King Jr. and Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas

Martin Luther King Jr. and Oswaldo Payá: Prophets and martyrs for freedom

Two important anniversaries are taking place this week: Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 21 and the 6 month anniversary of the deaths of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero on July 22, 2012. However Martin and Oswaldo share a lot more in common than the proximity of dates on a calendar. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas were Christians whose nonviolent defense of human rights was informed by their faith. Both of their movements emerged out of their respective local Churches. Martin Luther King Jr. was a reverend at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama and Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas a Catholic layman at the Savior of the World Parrish in El Cerro in Havana. 

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas was awarded the European Union's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2002  (English translation of speech available here) and was nominated by Vaclav Havel for the Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. 

On January 18, 2012 Santiago A. Cárdenas presented his book Payá: The Goat, The Man, The Prophet about the early years of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and the founding of the Christian Liberation Movement at a forum organized by the Institute of Historic Memory. It was this book presentation that generated this reflection on the parallels between Martin Luther King Jr. and Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas. 

Both Martin and Oswaldo were profoundly influenced by the social doctrine of Christianity and rejected both Capitalism and Marxism as ideologies that failed in respecting the dignity of the person. 

Both men founded a movement based in nonviolence and inspired by historic figures. In the case of Martin Luther King Jr., he was greatly influenced by Mohandas Gandhi and Oswaldo Payá was greatly influenced by Lech Walesa

 Both men had several moments where they made a national impact with international ramifications but in the end were attacked and marginalized for maintaining their nonviolent posture and failing to follow up on great momentary victories in an aggressive manner. 

Martin Luther King Jr.'s great triumphs were: the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1963 March on Washington, the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery and are well known. What is now forgotten is his failure to follow up on the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott; not participating in the 1961 Freedom Riders; the challenge of the 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement campaign, or the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign — cut short by his assassination on April 4, 1968.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s victories and remaining challenges are well known but Oswaldo Payá's with the exception of the Varela Project are relatively unknown and therefore require greater explanation.

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas's great triumphs were: Founding the Christian Liberation Movement on September 8, 1988, in a country where independent organizations are outlawed by the dictatorship, and had it become a national movement despite all the obstacles it faced. Announcing his intention to run for office in 1992 as an independent candidate to the rubber stamp National Assembly of People's Power exercising his constitutional right run for office. Two days prior to the meeting to accept applications he is publicly arrested at home and publicly paraded through the neighborhood to intimidate his neighbors. Communist party members threaten him that "blood will flow if he presents [his candidacy] at the meeting." Communist party members hold a meeting under guard with only a few of their followers. The inability of the Cuban regime to respect its own laws as established in the Constitution was dramatically exposed.

On October 10, 1995 as one of the organizers of the Cuban Council that sought to unify the opposition around a nonviolent program of national reconciliation and an official request to the Cuban authorities to hold a national dialogue on the future of Cuba on February 24, 1996. The regime's response was a massive crackdown on the days leading up to February 24 and the shoot down of two civilian planes on that day over international airspace.

Despite these challenges Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas carried on and in 1997 collected signatures and presented them to run for a seat in the National Assembly. The Election Commission refused to accept his candidacy.  Oswaldo responded by declaring that the election law did not respect the sovereignty of the people, that it was unconstitutional and demanded that it be scrapped in favor of a democratic election law. The regime's response was to slander Oswaldo Payá in the official media.

On January 22, 1998 the Christian Liberation Movement makes public the Varela Project and begins gathering signatures for a referendum to reform Cuban laws and bring it in line with the respect of fundamental human rights using a clause in Cuban law that citizen's can propose laws via a petition with 10,000 signatures.

In 1999 he drafts the declaration "All United" that seeks to carry out the goals that had already been proposed by the Cuban Council back in 1995 and on this occasion despite repression and harassment he is successful and the democratic opposition is able to hold its first national assembly.

In 2001 this united front "All United" relaunches the Varela Project and on May 10, 2002 members of the coalition led by Oswaldo present it with 11,020 confirmed signatures.  According to the 1992 Cuban Constitution the National Assembly had to publicly discuss the Varela Project and vote for it or against it and the government was obliged by law to encourage a public discussion of the Varela Project in the mass media it controls. Instead the regime ignored its own fundamental laws and launched its own petition drive to make the "socialist" nature of the constitution untouchable. This bill took precedence over the Varela Project in violation of its own rules and was voted on then on July 5, 2002 the National Assembly "indefinitely" suspended its meeting to avoid discussing the Varela Project. This led to an outpouring of international support for Oswaldo and the Varela Project.

On March 18, 2003 the Castro regime carries out a massive crackdown in which 75 Cuban dissidents are arrested to prison sentences of up to 28 years in prison. The majority of these new prisoners of conscience are members of the Christian Liberation Movement and / or involved in the Varela Project. Despite the repression the "All United" coalition continues to gather signatures for the Varela Project. Seven months after the massive crackdown on October 3, 2003 Oswaldo Payá personally delivers another 14,000 signatures for the Varela Project demanding a referendum.

He faces criticism from some quarters of the opposition for first operating within the confines of the current constitutional system, because Cubans did not have an opportunity to accept it in a free and fair vote but under one controlled by the dictatorship. Secondly, that instead of continuing to gather signatures for the Varela Project that he should've mobilized the opposition into taking to the streets and demanding the immediate release of all Cuban prisoners of conscience.

On December 12, 2003 Oswaldo Payá launched a national dialogue that in the end involved over 12,000 Cubans in 3,000 discussion groups in and out of Cuba to obtain a consensus on how to transition from the current system to a democratic one via concrete, nonviolent and legal means while also discussing the challenges that would be faced by a transitional government in governing this led in 2005 to the document: "All Cubans Program" and a pledge to continue the dialogue.

On December 18, 2007 he launched the Heredia Project which demanded that the right of Cubans to enter and exit their homeland be recognized and respected, a right systematically denied them by the Cuban regime.

On July 13, 2011 he announced a petition drive called "The People's Path" that once again generated a broad based coalition of support in the island and set out a path for change. The campaign is still underway.

In the final months before his untimely death on July 22, 2012, Oswaldo Payá, was denouncing the fraudulent change taking place in Cuba as the underlying nature of the regime remained unchanged while cosmetic efforts were made to improve its international image.

Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas died, martyred, for their work in the defense of human rights and dignity. Their work is still unfinished. Neither King or Payá achieved their end goal but both were prophets in their own land with local and global perspectives that continue to shake the establishments of their respective countries and remain a hopeful challenge to the civilizational order that it can do better.

Their nonviolent example has transcended their deaths and has left a legacy that continues to impact both their respective countries thus their words and deeds need to be studied: 

World peace through nonviolent means is neither absurd nor unattainable. All other methods have failed. Thus we must begin anew. Nonviolence is a good starting point. Those of us who believe in this method can be voices of reason, sanity, and understanding amid the voices of violence, hatred, and emotion. We can very well set a mood of peace out of which a system of peace can be built. – Martin Luther King, Jr. March 1965

The cause of human rights is a single cause, just as the people of the world are a single people. The talk today is of globalization, but we must state that unless there is global solidarity, not only human rights but also the right to remain human will be jeopardized. - Oswaldo Paya, December 17, 2002

"There are two types of laws: there are just laws and there are unjust laws...What is the difference between the two?...An unjust law is a man-made code that is out of harmony with the moral law...Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn't segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?" – Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963

Our Movement denounces the regime's attempt to impose a fraudulent change, i.e. change without rights and the inclusion of many interests in this change that sidesteps democracy and the sovereignty of the people of Cuba. The attempt to link the Diaspora in this fraudulent change is to make victims participate in their own oppression.  - Oswaldo Payá, March 30, 2012

"Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals." - Martin Luther King Jr. 1964
How close you and "Solidarity" have been to us in these years. Receive our fraternal greetings. I write on behalf of the Christian "Liberation" Movement. We are a Christian and patriotic movement that by peaceful means are working for freedom and democracy in our nation. ... I hope this gets to you and that the Poles might know of our struggle inspired by the Gospel. I cannot conclude without expressing our gratitude to you, the Movement "Solidarity" and all the Polish people that knew how to open the path of freedom for subject peoples. As Catholics we feel that we are in communion with you and that overcomes the difficulties of communication. - Oswaldo Payá, October 1, 1990 

"Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation." - Martin Luther King Jr.

We now know that any method or model which purportedly aims to achieve justice, development, and efficiency but takes precedence over the individual or cancels out any of the fundamental rights leads to a form of oppression and to exclusion and is calamitous for the people. - Oswaldo Paya, December 17, 2002

"Today the choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence." - Martin Luther King Jr. 1964
We wish to express our solidarity with all those who suffer from any form of oppression and injustice, and with those in the world who have been silenced or marginalized. - Oswaldo Paya, December 17, 2002

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. -
Martin Luther King Jr. December 11, 1964 

It's obviously a matter of shame that our land is being used for that purpose, having foreign prisoners brought to Cuba. Even if they are terrorists they deserve respect. Their human rights should be respected. - Oswaldo Paya, December 18, 2002 (on arrival of Taliban prisoners to Guantanamo )

Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.  - Martin Luther King Jr. December 11, 1964

There is a real “moral inversion,” in what the foreign media, intellectual circles, ecclesiastical circles, diplomats and politicians are doing against the people of Cuba and against the dissident right now. They judge the persecuted, the poor, those who are silenced, but they do not dare to judge the government. - Oswaldo Paya, October 3, 2011

Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. So much of modern life can be summarized in that arresting dictum of the poet Thoreau "Improved means to an unimproved end". - Martin Luther King Jr. December 11, 1964

"We thank all those heroes who on one day were abducted from their homes unjustly imprisoned solely for defending human rights. The people of Cuba and all who love justice must be grateful to those Cubans who have been symbols of dignity and hope shining from the shadows."  - Oswaldo Paya, October 7, 2010

After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time - the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. - Martin Luther King Jr. December 10, 1964

"It's difficult to say exactly what the offences are but it can be just for being critical of Fidel Castro. More than 20 leaders of our movement [the Christian Liberation Movement] are in prison and many other activists from other movements. The repression against the Varela Project [named after Felix Varela, a nineteenth-century Cuban independence advocate] is because they understood that people had lost their fear so we became a symbol of hope." - Oswaldo Payá, August 4, 2006

I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. "And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid." I still believe that We Shall overcome! - Martin Luther King Jr., December 10, 1964

"Many Cubans see powerful things in this regime or are concerned that they will be trapped. The solution cannot be a violent one because that will only bring more violence."  - Oswaldo Payá, August 4, 2006

"Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land." - Martin Luther King Jr. April 3, 1968 Memphis, Tennessee

"I have been told that I am going to be killed before the regime is over but I am not going to run away."- Oswaldo Payá, August 4, 2006   
"Truth is not to be found either in traditional capitalism or in Marxism. Each represents a partial truth. Historically, capitalism failed to discern the truth in collective enterprise and Marxism failed to see the truth in individual enterprise." - Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love1963  
"We don't want savage capitalism; we already have savage communism. Please, no more savage things." - Oswaldo Payá, November 20, 2010 
Hate is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true. Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love1963  
The first victory we can claim is that our hearts are free of hatred. Hence we say to those who persecute us and who try to dominate us: ‘You are my brother. I do not hate you, but you are not going to dominate me by fear. I do not wish to impose my truth, nor do I wish you to impose yours on me. We are going to seek the truth together’. - Oswaldo Paya, December 17, 2002 



  1. It's a great comparison. Paya has not received the recognition that he deserves.

  2. Agreed, but its still not too late to give him his due.

    1. What can we do to honor this great man and shed light on the suspicious circumstances surrounding his and Harold's deaths?