July 24, 2012

IN THE ANNALS of those who fight for freedom and human dignity in the face of totalitarianism, there must be a special place for individuals who dare take the first steps, when the monolith of power seems so foreboding. Oswaldo Payá took them in Cuba, showing people that they did not have to remain silent in Fidel Castro’s prison of crumbling communism.

Mr. Payá, 60, was killed Sunday evening in a car crash in Cuba’s eastern Granma province, along with another dissident. A rental car they were driving hit a tree. Two foreigners riding with them were injured. Family members have questioned the circumstances of the accident.

From the time he was a youth, Mr. Payá spoke his mind. In school, at age 17, he told friends of his support for the Prague Spring, while Mr. Castro was backing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. For his remarks, Mr. Payá was sentenced to three years in a labor camp, where he hacked sugar cane and quarried marble 10 hours a day. “It was a struggle between power and spirit,” he said. “I left with a stronger faith that things can change.”

Mr. Payá, an engineer and Catholic, never lost that faith. He stood up for religious and political freedom in the 1980s and 1990s. He came to greater prominence in 2002 with the Varela Project, named after Felix Varela, a 19th-century Catholic priest and independence activist. With help from members of other dissident groups, Mr. Payá circulated a petition seeking a national referendum to guarantee freedom of expression and association, amnesty for political prisoners and free elections. The petition drew an astonishing 10,000 signatures in Cuba, which under its constitution should have forced the National Assembly to permit a referendum.

But Mr. Castro had other ideas. In early 2003, he launched a vicious crackdown on dissidents and others who had supported the Varela Project. Within weeks, 75 were imprisoned, half of whom had gathered signatures for the project. Mr. Payá was not arrested, but Mr. Castro smashed what Mr. Payá called “the Cuban Spring.” Former Czech president Vaclav Havel, who had inspired so many with his resistance to communism, nominated Mr. Payá for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.

Mr. Payá was undaunted, despite the repressions. He later developed a document to stimulate what he called a National Dialogue, a debate for all Cubans about their future, and thousands of people participated. Mr. Payá insisted that he wanted peaceful change and, as he put it, “no lynchings, no revenge, no exclusions.” He sought a free society to be built by Cubans with their own hands. While his dreams have yet to be fulfilled, they will be, and when they do, it will be in no small measure because he had the courage to take those first steps.