Saturday, November 11, 2017

Remembering some of the victims of Cuban communism: Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas

"When one man dies it's a tragedy. When thousands die it's statistics." - Josef Stalin

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas 1952 - 2012 murdered by Castro regime
Some psychologists argue that as the number of victims increase into the hundreds, and thousands that compassion collapses out of the human fear of being overwhelmed. In the case of Cuba the communist regime has killed tens of thousands, and many have become numb in the face of this horror. Therefore on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first communist regime in Russia, that caused so much harm around the world, will focus on the small corner of Cuba and on an infinitesimal sampling of some of the victims of Cuban communism. These took place during my years of activism, and I knew some of the victims personally, and remain outraged at the injustice and continuing impunity. The first entry concerned a humble bricklayer turned courageous human rights defender who paid the ultimate price for speaking truth to power. This entry focuses on a Catholic lay activist, nonviolence icon, husband, father of three and the founder of a Cuban opposition movement that shook the foundation of the Castro regime with a simple demand that human rights be respected and reformed in Cuba using the existing constitution. This audacious action and continuing speaking truth to power led to a suspicious death that appears to have been a political assassination by the communist regime in Cuba.
Oswaldo Payá: Catholic layman
Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas never held political office. He was born into a Catholic family on February 29, 1952 that did not side with either the Batista or Castro dictatorships. Oswaldo was just 6 years old when Fidel Castro took power in January of 1959. The Payá family was considered an enemy of the regime simply because they refused to renounce their Catholic faith as the communist dictatorship demanded or to remain silent before glaring injustices.

 In 1961 during the Bay of Pigs invasion there home was subjected to what would later become known as an “act of repudiation” where a mob surrounded their home shouting insults, death threats, and for the family to be taken to the firing squad. All the adult males had been detained leaving the women and children alone to face the harassment and threats. Until 1992 the regime was officially atheist, violently hostile to religion and the continued fealty of the Payá family to their Catholic faith meant that they were targeted, their home under constant surveillance, and occasionally searched. 

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas: Non-violence icon

Forced Labor Camp at age 16
Oswaldo was the only child in his class who refused to join the young communists and its precursor the young pioneers. During the 1968 invasion at age 16 he demonstrated his sympathy with the people of Czechoslovakia and openly criticized the Soviet invaders. When other students sided with Oswaldo’s support of the Czechs, the school authorities saw the 16 year old as a threat and sent him to a punishment camp to forced labor from May of 1969 until 1972.

Returning home in 1972 he enrolled at the University of Havana in the Physics program. There he is also targeted for being practicing Christian and for openly rejecting Marxism, a stance unthinkable for anyone at that time. Because of this he is forced to enter night school. Since the Communist Party decided who could or could not work he was repeatedly denied employment until he found humble work as a carpenter’s assistant. Sometime later he was able to obtain a position as a high school teacher for night school while completing a program in telecommunications engineering but since he refuses to politically indoctrinate students he is forced to end his teaching career. 

In the early 1980s Oswaldo begins to work in Public Health as a specialist in repairing electromedical equipment. Meanwhile he is constantly harassed and kept under the watchful eye of state security. State security agents begin to visit his work place and follow him everywhere. While Oswaldo traveled to different work assignments on bicycle he is followed by various cars. At the entrance to his home state security would set up a check point requesting and examining the identification of anyone who approached the house.
Oswaldo and Ofelia wanted their children to grow up free in Cuba
Marries Ofelia in 1986
In 1986 Oswaldo participated as a delegate for the Diocese of Havana in a National Ecclesiastical Encounter (ENEC) where he gave a presentation titled “Faith and Justice” in which he defended the rights of Cuban Catholics to practice their faith with absolute freedom and that this was only possible in an atmosphere of justice and reconciliation. He also called on the Church to defend the rights of Cubans and to denounce injustice.

In 1986 he also marries Ofelia Acevedo Maura, a civil engineer, and practicing catholic with whom he forges a happy home out of which Oswaldo José, the oldest, Rosa María, the middle child and Reynaldo Isaías, the youngest of three would grow up in an environment of love and faith.

Together with a group of lay people, Oswaldo organizes regular gatherings in their parish of the Cerro on Cuban Thought. Out of these conversations and presentations Oswaldo edits, “The People of God,” the first autonomous and independent publication that defends freedom, not only for believers but for all Cubans.  

Coordinators of the Varela Project
 Founding of the Christian Liberation Movement
Oswaldo, in an interview years later, explained that it was upon the nearing of the birth of their first child, Oswaldo José that he and Ofelia decided:

“When our first child was going to be born, we have three children, we said that our children cannot live in a country without liberty and we are not going to another country to seek freedom. Therefore we have to fight for our children to live free here in Cuba and everyone else’s children and their parents too.”

Oswaldo José was born on February 17, 1988 and the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) came into existence that same year on September 8, 1988 on the Feast Day for Cachita, Our Lady of Charity. The founding of the Christian Liberation Movement began a new phase of nonviolent civic struggle for national reconciliation. In March of 1990 Oswaldo is detained for several days and interrogated by the political police of the regime and threatened that if he continues his nonviolent civic struggle that he would face several years in prison. 

Communist regime's response to call for national dialogue.
 Call for a National Dialogue: action and reaction Following his release from detention Oswaldo Payá and the MCL make public a "Call to a National Dialogue" to Cubans inside and outside the island. The movement begins a campaign to collect 10,000 signatures, with the intention of giving this citizen’s initiative the status of a Bill covered in Article 86 of the Cuban Constitution in force, before it was partially reformed in 1992.
The petition campaign began by extending itself across Cuba. All that came to a halt on June 11, 1991 when a mob organized by the Castro regime, raided his home, which Oswaldo had opened to the public to collect signatures, in the days leading up to the attack hundreds of Cuban citizens began to visit him to support the National Dialogue initiative. Mobs of government elements and State Security organized an act repudiation, raided and looted the house, located at Santa Teresa # 63, in the Cerro district. Mobs painted vandalized the front of the Payá home, where his two small children and pregnant wife lived. The facade of the house remained with phrases, painted with asphalt, saying: "Payá agent of the CIA", "worm", "Viva Fidel", "Down with Payá”. Those slanders remained on the front of his home for nearly eight years. Oswaldo, after this act of cruelty against his family, moved his wife and children to his in-laws, and remained for eight years in an internal exile persecuted day by day. 

Oswaldo Payá and his family in happier times in Cuba.
Setting Out a Vision For a Democratic Transition in Cuba
Payá, beginning in 1992, wrote the Transitional Program, which proposed a way to transform Cuban society peacefully. In 1993, he and supporters began collecting signatures for a referendum on the Transitional Program. The July 13, 1994, 13 de Marzo tugboat massacre and the August 5, 1994, Maleconazo uprising, which stimulated an exodus in the summer of 1994, however, halted the petition drive.

In 1995, Oswaldo was one of the first to call on the United States to lift the embargo on foods and medicines without conditions and for a review of their policy towards Cuba. That year, he was also one of the five organizers of the Cuban Council, drafting the only document of unity that embodied the positions of its members.

State Security detained him and threatened him, asking him to discourage the meeting. Oswaldo refused, and they surrounded his home with state security agents until the Council was unable to be held due to repressions and the shooting down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes in international airspace.

In 1997, Oswaldo, together with 10 other members of the Christian Liberation Movement, collected hundreds of signatures in support of their candidacies for deputies in the National Assembly. It was the first time that citizens presented themselves as candidates with popular support and without being of the government. The electoral commissions did not accept the nominations, once again demonstrating how the regime fails to abide by its own laws.

In 1997, Payá presented a claim to the National Assembly of People’s Power demonstrating that the electoral law was unconstitutional and anti-sovereign and demanded its repeal and change for another democratic law.

The official press in Cuba sought to slander and defame him in order to stimulate provocations and create a cover for government attacks against him. An example of this took place just days after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York City; a group of agents and provocateurs screamed at Oswaldo on the street as he walked with his wife and two children: “They too need to be finished off with a bomb.”

When Oswaldo was killed in 2012, hundreds turned out for his funeral to pay their respects, despite state security harassing and detaining people. 

Turning in Project Varela on May 10, 2002
 The Varela Project

From 1996 to 1997, Oswaldo drafted the Varela Project, a campaign to reform the Cuban legal system. During the Pope’s visit to Cuba in 1998, he was closely watched and guarded by state security — but that same year he and the Christian Liberation Movement still publicly launched the Varela Project and started collecting signatures for a referendum.

In 1999, he drafted the ”All United” manifesto and proposed the first meeting of the opposition, held under strong repression, which resulted in a movement of unity. Oswaldo was appointed coordinator of the “Rapporteur Committee for All United,” and in March, 2001, All United re-launched the call to collect 10,000 signatures for the referendum on the Varela Project.

Oswaldo Payá meets with Secretary of State Colin Powell on January 7, 2003
 On May 10, 2002, representatives of All United, led by Oswaldo, turned 11,020 signatures of electors into the National Assembly of Popular Power, in that way turning Project Varela into a bill under the prevailing Cuban Constitution. This obliged the Assembly of Popular Power to publicly discuss the Varela Project and to vote in favor or against it. Furthermore, the government was obliged to promote a public discussion of Project Varela in the mass media that it controlled (and still does).

Once again, instead of following its own rules as laid out in the Cuban government’s own laws and regulations, the regime’s response was to organize its own petition drive to make the “socialist” aspect of the current Constitution untouchable. This supposed law was presented and approved by the Assembly in violation of its own regulations, since the Varela Project by precedence should have been considered first. Then on July 5, 2002, the Assembly “indefinitely” suspended its ordinary session to avoid discussing the Varela Project. The regime also responded with acts of repression and intransigence against members of the civic, nonviolent movement — but project Varela organizers continued to collect signatures and the civic movement grew.

The thousands of signatures gathered catches the attention of the international community, because it demonstrates that the Cuban civic opposition has a popular base of support. 

Oswaldo Payá and Vaclav Havel in 2002 in Prague
 Czech President Vaclav Havel launched a campaign to support Oswaldo’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent efforts towards freedom and democracy in Cuba. Oswaldo was nominated on four occasions. In October 2002, the European Parliament awarded him the Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Members of the European Union, led by Havel and Aznar pressured the Cuban government into allowing Oswaldo to travel to Europe to collect the Sakharov Prize. In December of 2002, they granted him permission to travel to the ceremonies in Strasbourg, France, but not before attacking his home and leaving death threats there.

Oswaldo Payá receives the Sakharov Prize in 2002
Oswaldo did travel to Strasbourg, and on December 17, 2002, he accepted the Sakharov Prize. In the course of a twenty minute speech, he outlined his nonviolent political philosophy.

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.” This is the liberation which we are proclaiming.
Oswaldo traveled across Europe, the United States, and Latin America meeting world leaders and representing the nonviolent civic movement in Cuba. He received an audience with His Holiness Pope John Paul II, President Aznar in Spain, and Havel in the Czech Republic, along with the Prime Minister of Slovakia and the Secretary of State of the United States, Colin Powell, in Washington, DC. He visited Mexico and met with President Fox, and in his final stop was the Dominican Republic, where he was received by President Mejías.

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas returns home to Cuba in early 2003
He returned home to a warm welcome in February of 2003 with a large crowd of family, friends, and international media waiting for him at the airport.

Black Spring Crackdown

The Castro regime responded on March 18, 2003, with the beginning of the Black Cuban Spring. Over a 100 activists were detained and seventy-five were sentenced to prison in show trials with sentences ranging from twelve years up to twenty-eight years in prison. More than forty of the imprisoned activists had worked on the Varela Project.

The Cuban government announced, at the time, that the dissident movement had been destroyed. However, the remaining activists who were still free continued to gather signatures, and Oswaldo turned in another 14,384 petition signatures on October 5, 2003. Furthermore, the wives, sisters, and daughters of the activists who had been detained and imprisoned organized themselves into the Ladies in White. A movement that sought the freedom of their loved ones and organized regular marches through the streets of Cuba, despite regime organized violence upon them.

Catholic nun lays flowers before photos of 75 prisoners of conscience of the Black Spring
Oswaldo would refocus his efforts on campaigning for the freedom of these prisoners of conscience. It took over eight years, but the last of the group of the 75 were eventually released. Many were driven into exile but a core group remains in Cuba and are still defiant. Others lost their lives defending human rights and dignity by gathering signatures for the Varela Project, such as Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died on hunger strike on February 23, 2010.

Oswaldo continued defending human rights with well thought out projects demanding specific rights like the Heredia Project — it campaigned for Cubans to have the freedom to travel inside and outside of Cuba — and The People’s Path in 2011, which sought to lay the framework for a nonviolent democratic transition.


At the same time, Oswaldo in April 2012 denounced the campaign to marginalize the democratic opposition and the Cuban government’s efforts, along with unscrupulous allies, to carry out a fraudulent change at the expense of the freedom of the Cuban people. 

Suspicious Deaths point to extrajudicial executions by State Security
On July 22, 2012, while heading to Santiago de Cuba in a car with Harold Cepero and two international youth leaders, on a solidarity visit, another car struck theirs. The end result was that both Harold and Oswaldo died in Bayamo, Cuba.


The Cuban government attempted to engage in a cover up and invented a story that did not line up with the known facts. It is for that reason that the victims’ families are demanding an international investigation to learn the truth of what happened.

Ofelia Acevedo mourns the death of her husband Oswaldo Payá
On February 23, 2016 at the 8th edition of the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy Rosa María Payá  addressed what happened to her dad Oswaldo Payá and friend Harold Cepero, on July 22, 2012: 
"On July 22, 2012, my father was extrajudicially  executed by agents of the political police, together with my dear friend Harold Cepero, staging a car crash that never took place, in a location of Cuba that remains to be  determined. Not satisfied with this double crime, my family was threatened with death..."In the summer of 2015 a special report was released by Human Rights Foundation, where all  evidences indicate that this was a crime against humanity, with the involvement of Cuban  authorities.  We’ll never give up on justice, because there can be no reconciliation without the recognition  of the whole truth. A nation that pretends to forget the violence against its innocent people  will remain a captive nation. And it will be a nation condemned to suffer such violence over  and over again."

 Much of the information taken from a biography prepared by Christian Liberation spokesman Regis Iglesias in 2005 with some minor changes and additions.

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