Fred Hiatt: In Cuba and China, playing mind games with dissidents

Fred Hiatt
Editorial page editor April 10, 2013

Why would Cuban security agents choose to kill the island’s leading dissident while he was in the company of two Europeans who might bear witness to the crime?

To outside observers, it’s an intriguing mystery. For those directly affected, even to ask the question is, in some sense, to surrender to the malign influence of authoritarian control. That was one message this week from two inspiring young women, daughters of courageous democracy activists from opposite sides of the world, who happened to be in Washington at the same time.

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

“I’m not so anxious to understand the perverse logic of repression,” Rosa Maria Payá, 24, replied when I asked why agents might have targeted her father that way.

“I don’t think there is a reason to kill anyone,” she added. “And I shouldn’t have to be having to answer that. This is a question to put to the people who threatened his life on a daily basis.”

Violence, censorship and imprisonment are the obvious weapons of dictators, from Cuba to China. But the tools of repression also include caprice. If no one can be sure who will be targeted and who will not — when rule by whim replaces rule of law — then everyone must live in fear.

Fred Hiatt’s young adult novel mirrors Ti-Anna Wang’s attempts to free her father from a Chinese prison. We speak to Hiatt and Wang about the book and the case that inspired it. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

That is the dictator’s hope. Payá and Ti-Anna Wang, 23, decline to play along.

Wang’s father, Wang Bingzhang, is a democracy activist who was living in exile in North America 11 years ago when he traveled to Vietnam for a meeting with Chinese labor activists.

He was kidnapped, bundled across the Chinese border, held incommunicado for six months and then, after a closed one-day trial, sentenced to life in prison on spurious charges of terrorism.

Why was Wang targeted and not other exile leaders? For that matter, why has his daughter not been granted a visa to visit her father for the past four years? Each application has been denied — without explanation. Ti-Anna Wang said she refuses to waste time speculating on motivation.

“The arbitrariness is designed to break your spirit,” she said. “We really can’t dwell on wondering why they do what they do, or fear what they might do, because those thoughts are crippling.”

Payá’s father, Oswaldo Payá, was the leader of a peaceful movement advocating free elections and human rights in Cuba. He died last July in what the Cuban government has called a one-car accident, in which the driver, a Spanish sympathizer of Payá, supposedly drove into a tree.

But photos of the car show that it was smashed from behind, and the driver, Ángel Carromero, has said that he was run off the road by a car he believes was driven by government agents. He and a Swedish associate in the front seat survived; Payá and a Cuban associate, both in the back seat, were killed.

Two months earlier Payá narrowly survived another suspicious crash. Were agents so infuriated by that escape that they were determined to try again, no matter what the consequences? Was the operation intended just to bump and scare Payá? Or did the agents welcome a chance to act with Europeans present — a sign to all Cubans that there is no protection, no matter who your friends may be?

For outsiders, such theorizing can be seductive. For people living under the regime’s control, it is — and is intended to be — debilitating.

“I can speculate about the motive,” Rosa Maria Payá said during a visit to The Post. “I can speculate about why now and not before or after. But I can also talk about what I know for sure.”

Here are some things Payá and Wang said they know for sure.

Wang: “Any government that jails its own people for political dissent still has a long way to go to become a respected member of the international community.”

Payá: “Dictatorships have no political color: not right or left, they are only dictatorships. Cubans are entitled to their rights, and this is more human than political.”

Why did the Cuban government allow Payá to travel, when dissidents are frequently denied exit permits? Maybe officials hoped to lend credibility to their faux reform. Maybe they hoped she would stay in exile.

Payá said she doesn’t know and isn’t trying to figure it out. She intends to return to her Havana home next week, to continue the fight for democracy and for an honest accounting of her father’s death.

Fred Hiatt’s “Nine Days,” a novel for young adults inspired partly by Ti-Anna Wang’s story, was published this week.

Read more from Fred Hiatt’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

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