Sunday, July 21, 2013

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas: Living free in communist Cuba

"Christians and non-Christians who have the courage and the freedom to consider the peaceful political option for their lives, know they are exposing themselves to slightly less than absolute solitude, to work exclusion, to persecution, to prison or death. "- Harold Cepero, Havana 2012

Oswaldo Payá home attacked and defaced on June 11, 1991 by Castro agents
 Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas: Living free in communist Cuba

Oswaldo Payá demonstrated with his life that it is possible to be a free man in Cuba under communism. Speaking here of his inner freedom. A man can be free inside of a maximum security prison. Although Cuba under Castro is a nightmarish totalitarian regime that is recognizable in the pages of George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, unlike the character of Winston Smith, Oswaldo's life, embracing and living his Catholic faith, demonstrates the power of nonviolence to confront totalitarian evil. His life is a testament to the power of a moral and principled resistance that confronts evil but refuses to do it with evil. Oswaldo offers a liberation in which all, both captor and captive are liberated, it is a profoundly Christian outlook. He was killed along with Harold Cepero, a youth leader in the Christian Liberation Movement, under suspicious circumstances that have not been cleared up. Friends and family of Oswaldo and Harold are asking people of good will to sign a petition requesting an international investigation into their deaths. At the same time, we do know how they lived and why their lives should be studied, shared with others and emulated. Below is a brief outline of the life of a good and courageous man who spent a life time struggling for a free Cuba.

Childhood and early adolescence
 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.

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. He was repeatedly punished for not going along with what officials had planned for him. 

Returning home in 1972 he enrolled at the University of Havana in the Bachelor in Physics program. There he is also pointed out for being practicing Christian and stating that he was not and never would be a Marxist, a stance unthinkable for any student 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. His younger brother is not allowed to study at university for “political-ideological” problems. Other brothers of Oswaldo were expelled from University for the same reason. 

In 1980 relatives from Miami come looking for him at the port of Mariel but Oswaldo and the rest of the family refuse to emigrate. Despite this, the communists, who were targeting those who wanted to leave with violent mob attacks on their homes, also lay siege to Oswaldo’s home.

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. This would go on for three or four days at a time with as many as six or eight agents within 2 to 3 meters.

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. Nevertheless, his words sounded strident in an environment characterized by caution and the trend was to adapt to totalitarianism that had extended itself across Russia, Eastern Europe, and into elements of the hierarchy.

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. In 1988, after strong pressure from the religious affairs office of the Cuban Communist Party, the bishop of Havana Jaime Ortega, prohibits the publication and the gatherings on Cuban thought.

They wanted their children to grow up free in Cuba

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.

Call for a National Dialogue
Following his release from detention Oswaldo Payá and the MCL make public a "Call to a National Dialogue" among all 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 well by extending itself across the country. All that came to a screeching halt on June 11, 1991 when a mob organized by the government, raided his home, which Oswaldo had opened to the public to collect signatures and 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 aggressive phrases on the front of the Payá home without considering that there lived two small children and his wife who was pregnant. The facade of the house remained with phrases, painted with asphalt, saying: "Payá agent of the CIA", "worm", "Viva Fidel", "Down with Payá”.

Those signs covered the front of his home for close to eight years. Oswaldo, after this act of cruelty against his family, moved his wife and children to his in-laws, who received them kindly, defying the pressures of State Security, and remained for eight years in an internal exile persecuted day by day by subjects responsible for these heinous duties. 

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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