Oswaldo Payá speaks to supporters at his Aunt Beba's house on May 14, 2002. "Liberation is born from the soul, through a stroke of lightning that God gives to Cubans," he said. "This little paper, it contains the popular will." (Jorge Uzon/AFP via Getty Images)

Opinion ‘Liberation is born from the soul’: Oswaldo Payá’s struggle for a free Cuba

Just before 6 a.m. on July 22, 2012, Oswaldo Payá opened the door of his house in Havana’s El Cerro neighborhood and stepped into the darkened street. He was accompanied by his young protege, Harold Cepero. Both carried overnight bags.

Oswaldo was 60 years old, with thick, wavy hair the color of charcoal and a swirl at the peak of his forehead. He had deep rings under his eyes and worry creases sometimes rippled across his brow, but his brown eyes were soft, understanding and patient. He often dressed casually, in jeans and a short-sleeved checkered shirt, the collar open wide, the buttons askew. By day, he was an engineer who specialized in medical electronics, troubleshooting lifesaving equipment at Havana hospitals. But his great passion was to change Cuba, to unleash a society of free people with unfettered rights to speak and act as they wished. He called it liberation.

Leer in español | ‘La liberación nace del alma’: la lucha de Oswaldo Payá por una Cuba libre

He and Cepero walked past slumbering households as dogs and roosters milled about behind gates and fences. Oswaldo looked warily for cars in the shadows. Over many years, Fidel Castro’s state security had stationed surveillance vehicles in a nearby park and had paid residents in neighboring houses to inform on him. Oswaldo hoped the darkness would cover their departure, giving them a head start on a dangerous mission.

Oswaldo was going to Santiago de Cuba, 540 miles to the east, to train young activists and organize local committees for the Movimiento Cristiano Liberación, the democracy movement he founded in 1988. He started it with friends at the parish church, where four generations of his family had anchored their Catholic faith. The movimiento had grown to more than 1,000 members across the island, a civic and political group, nondenominational but driven by the values of Christian democracy that had confronted fascism and communism in the 20th century. Oswaldo, in building the movimiento, had become a leading voice of the opposition to Castro’s dictatorship.

A blue Hyundai Accent pulled up to the curb. Oswaldo softly recited a brief prayer, then climbed into the rear seat on the driver’s side; Cepero on the passenger side.

Two foreigners rode in front. They had come to Cuba expressly to assist Oswaldo and rented the blue Hyundai to drive him around, evading state security. The driver, 26-year-old Ángel Carromero, led the Madrid youth wing of Spain’s ruling Partido Popular, or People’s Party. Next to him was Aron Modig, 27, who headed the youth organization of Sweden’s Christian Democrats in Stockholm.

Oswaldo gave Carromero directions out of Havana. As the sun rose, he talked to his visitors of memories and pent-up hopes, a lifetime of visions pursued yet never quite fulfilled.

Oswaldo recalled how he had launched the Varela Project in 1998, challenging Castro’s dictatorship with an unprecedented nationwide citizen petition for democracy. The project was named for Félix Varela, a 19th-century priest and philosopher who was Cuba’s most illustrious educator. Oswaldo explained how they had doggedly collected signatures, door to door, then surprised Fidel and state security by submitting 11,020 names to the National Assembly in 2002 and 14,384 additional signatures the following year. More than 10,000 other signatures were still hidden. Nothing like it had ever happened before in Castro’s Cuba.

But Oswaldo and his movement paid a heavy price. His activity thrust him into the crosshairs of Cuba’s Seguridad del Estado, or state security, a hardened secret police trained in the methods of East Germany’s Ministry for State Security, the Stasi. In Cuba, state security harassed and intimidated dissidents and opposition figures using wiretaps, subversion, threats, detention and fear. Oswaldo took the brunt of it for years. After the first wave of Varela Project signatures was submitted, state security arrested and imprisoned 75 activists and independent journalists. They were sentenced to long prison terms in 2003 for nothing more than collecting signatures. Oswaldo was not arrested, but he was subjected to a different torment: relentless psychological warfare, including death threats.

This is the story of one man’s struggle against totalitarian rule. Throughout Cuba’s volatile history, people have risen to demand the right to rule themselves freely. They were dreamers who dared to wish for more, whose visions were often cut short, whose pursuit of liberty was often lost and then resurrected again by a new generation. Oswaldo Payá inherited those dreams and turned them into action with the Varela Project. He knew how basic rights were trampled upon in Cuba and set out, against great odds, to do something about it.

When a U.S. diplomat visited his house on Calle Peñón in 2006, Oswaldo was insistent. “People aren’t taking seriously enough the threat that they’d liquidate me,” he said.

He confided to a friend, “I see very few chances of getting out alive.”

When Castro led a ragtag band of rebels in the Sierra Maestra mountains in the late 1950s, the bearded guerrilla promised to create a democracy to replace the brutish autocracy of Fulgencio Batista. “We are fighting for the beautiful ideal of a free, democratic, and just Cuba. We want elections, but with one condition: truly free, democratic, and impartial elections,” he pledged. His manifestos spoke of “liberty,” “democracy” and “freedom.”

Once in power, Fidel took a different path. With backing from the Soviet Union and the Stasi, he constructed a dictatorship based on an overarching ideology, a single party, a secret police, total control of mass communications, the elimination of civil society and the power of a ruthless police state. His ambitions were totalitarian, to corral all of Cuba inside his revolution; as he put it, “within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.”

With Fidel, everything was intensely personal. He recoiled at criticism, perceiving it as disloyalty and disloyalty as treachery. He was impatient and unforgiving. He possessed none of the skills important in a democracy, such as the ability to accept defeat or compromise, to share power or to follow rules set by others. His life had been spent fighting, with words or bullets. One of Fidel’s commanders during the guerrilla war, Huber Matos, a teacher from Manzanillo, had bravely smuggled a planeload of weapons and ammunition from Costa Rica for the rebel army. Later, after Fidel was in power, Matos told the Cuban leader he was appalled at the growing influence of communism in the revolution. Castro had him arrested and sentenced to jail for 20 years.

Oswaldo devoted a lifetime to opposing Castro’s repression. He believed the rights of every person are God-given and cannot be taken away by the state. For most of his life, those rights were stolen, tarnished and denied in Cuba. Even something as innocent as hanging a sign saying “Feliz Navidad,” or “Merry Christmas,” on the bell tower of his church was considered subversive. Defiant, Oswaldo hung the sign anyway. He never lived in a state of liberty, but liberty lived in his mind and drove his fight for it.

Oswaldo was born in 1952. As a boy, he witnessed the seizure of his father’s business as Castro’s revolution confiscated private enterprises in 1965. As a teenager, he protested the Soviet tanks’ crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 and was sent to Castro’s forced labor camps. Later, Oswaldo demanded that Catholic Church leaders in Cuba stand up for human rights and democracy; weakened by decades of repression, they chose reconciliation rather than confrontation. When Oswaldo published a popular newsletter demanding basic rights, the archbishop of Havana insisted that he stop. He would not. By the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union plunged Cubans into economic despair, Oswaldo had become a prominent advocate of democracy and basic human rights.

In the early 1990s, as thousands of Cubans took to the sea in flimsy rafts to escape, Oswaldo searched for ways to mobilize people to oppose the dictatorship. He admired Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and in 1990 proposed a “national dialogue” and “roundtable” similar to what happened in Poland to end Communist rule. But he had no means of public communication — no internet, no access to radio or television or newspapers. He was met with stony silence from the government.

However, Oswaldo was aware of a long-overlooked provision of Cuba’s constitution under which citizens could initiate legislation through a petition that would require 10,000 signatures. After thinking about options for many years, Oswaldo sought to bring about change by using the system against itself. The constitution and the citizen initiative would be his tools.

Oswaldo had been profoundly affected by the Tiananmen Square massacre in China. He wanted nonviolent change but understood the risk that violence could flare. “We don’t think,” he said, “that a truly liberating process involves bloodshed.”

In 1991, he began to collect signatures for a vague proposal: legislation for a referendum, a national dialogue and democratic change. On July 11, government-backed thugs ransacked his house and sprayed graffiti on the walls outside: “Payá, you worm,” “CIA agent,” and “Long live Fidel.” Oswaldo picked himself up and tried again, this time with a lengthy “transition program,” a detailed road map to democracy that ran 46 pages and nine chapters. In 1995, he joined others in forming an umbrella group of civil society, Concilio Cubano. Castro’s state security went after the leaders and shut it down.

Through trial and error, Oswaldo learned. His earlier documents were too long, he realized. He needed to simplify, to be more of a preacher with a sermon than an electrical engineer with a complicated diagram.

His next, much simplified plan was the Varela Project. It requested that the rubber-stamp National Assembly put five basic proposals to a popular referendum: freedom of association, press and expression; amnesty for political prisoners; the rights of private enterprise; a new electoral code for genuinely free elections; and new elections after the referendum. The petition was printed on a single sheet of paper creased at the half-fold, with room for 10 signatures and addresses and identification numbers. He wanted people to shed their fear and stand up to be counted.

In January 1998, a visit by Pope John Paul II electrified the island. Spontaneous shouts of “Libertad!” filled the square when the pope celebrated a final Mass. Oswaldo and his wife, Ofelia, were there with their children — and ecstatic. Days later, Oswaldo launched the Varela Project.

It was hard at first. He was constantly under surveillance and pressure from state security. They looked for weaknesses, hoping to infiltrate meetings, recruit informers and pressure members. Oswaldo watched for infiltrators. He had to step carefully; to be shrewd, skeptical and hard-nosed. Ricardo Zuñiga, a U.S. Foreign Service officer who served in Havana and knew Oswaldo during this period, recalled that state security was a formidable adversary. “They had multiple tools to aim at you: to dissuade, to co-opt, to show up at your work, to harass your children. They weren’t going to kill you, just make your life miserable.” State security typically assigned one officer to each target of repression. In the case of Oswaldo and the movimiento, it was a fellow named “Edgar.”

Henrik Ehrenberg, a Swedish democracy activist who visited Oswaldo frequently in those years, recalled, “Every meeting was a risk. State security was sometimes one step ahead of us. They would hear he was coming somewhere and go around the day before, threatening people not to come.” Oswaldo took evasive actions, postponing meetings, warning his people so they could stay out of trouble. He met them in rooms with blinds drawn. He instructed them on how to keep state security from seizing the petitions — and how to protect the people distributing them. Collecting signatures was legal under the constitution, he reminded them, but they were also going up against Fidel. “This is for real,” Oswaldo often told small groups, soberly describing the dangers ahead.

Oswaldo noticed that a spirit of resistance was blossoming in the summer of 1999. The pope’s visit had encouraged people to act on their own. The signs of civil society were unmistakable in the rise of associations of lawyers, farmers, economists, ecologists, teachers, independent libraries, youth organizations, relatives of political prisoners, and the blind or otherwise physically disabled. They were spread out across the country, not just in Havana, and the participants were becoming more diverse — youths, women, people of color. Amid all this activity, Oswaldo needed to collect more signatures. The Varela Project had hundreds but not thousands.

A breakthrough came in late 1999. The long-splintered Cuban opposition formed a new umbrella group, Todos Unidos, or everyone united. The founding document, which Oswaldo helped draft, was a direct call to the goals of the Varela Project. “We, the Cuban people, are the protagonists of our history,” it declared. “We are the ones who must create all of these spaces where we, as free men and women, can build a better society.” Oswaldo was named spokesman, essentially the leader. Soon, members of Todos Unidos became the foot soldiers of the Varela Project. Within two years, there were 100 groups working to collect signatures. It was a rare period of cohesion and common purpose.

“In the middle of this experience,” Oswaldo recalled later, “state security stopped me one day, threatened me, and told me that if the opposition in Cuba becomes unified, I’ll be imprisoned for so many years — that Todos Unidos was based on destroying the revolution and that they wouldn’t allow it.” Oswaldo had been threatened before. Now, however, he took special measures, assisted by a clandestine network of nuns, who concealed the signed petitions in convents. The petitions were cranked out on a noisy photocopier installed in the house of Oswaldo’s Aunt Beba, near his home on Calle Peñón. Every petition had a unique serial number for tracking. Every page of 10 signatures was laboriously copied and the original stored with the nuns.

On the streets, people were surprisingly eager to sign, more so than Oswaldo had anticipated. One ardent backer, Fredesvinda Hernández, collected more than 1,000 signatures, believed to be the most gathered by any single person.

Still, state security harassed the signature collectors — threatening their jobs and warning of jail time or harm to their families. Hundreds of collectors were arrested in 2000; in December alone, 270 were detained. At one point, state security detained José Daniel Ferrer, one of the project’s leaders in Santiago de Cuba, and about a dozen others. They were beaten up by a roadside, and about 130 signatures were seized. For weeks, state security officers with microphones and recording gear shadowed every member of the movimiento who came or left from Aunt Beba’s house. But the harassment didn’t slow things down. Signatures came in by the hundreds, soon the thousands.

Then state security decided to take a different approach. The Stasi had taught Cuba’s state security a simple lesson: Rather than use brute force, arrests and violence, it was often better to subvert, manipulate and paralyze quietly from within. The Stasi had created a vast corps of unofficial informants in East Germany to infiltrate any corner of society and do the dirty work. In Cuba, state security refined these methods. They knew how to infiltrate, discredit and ruin an organization.

One of Oswaldo’s close associates was Pedro Pablo Álvarez, a union organizer who had helped ramp up signature collection by pursuing signatures in small towns outside of Havana, using his labor connections. In Beba’s house one day, Álvarez closely examined a Varela Project petition. He knew from experience that Cubans all had an 11-digit national identification number and an ID card. Each digit in the individual number had a specific meaning. A single digit indicated male or female: Men were even numbers, women were odd. He focused on a certain signature, Juana, a woman’s name. Something was wrong. Juana had a man’s number. He took the page to Oswaldo. They began to look at more petitions.

Oswaldo had a sinking feeling. Hundreds of the signatures had ID numbers that were of the opposite gender. The signatures had been falsified. “Edgar” and his colleagues in state security had infected the project. Years of hard work could be ruined. It turned out that in the rush to collect signatures, the Todos Unidos-affiliated groups skipped a verification step. The mismatches were not just errors — it was a campaign of subterfuge. The very fact of falsifications would give Fidel an excuse to dismiss the whole project with a wave of his hand.

The falsifications were Oswaldo’s worst nightmare. State security was inside his network. He launched a crash campaign to validate every signature. Oswaldo selected about 250 of the most trusted members of his movement across the island and formed verification brigades. Town by town and village by village, they rechecked all the signatures, addresses and ID numbers; every original signature was verified three times. The work was done quietly so state security would not know that its infiltration had been detected.

On the evening of May 9, 2002, Oswaldo’s team gathered at Beba’s. Cardboard boxes were piled against a wall. (They were labeled “Havana Club,” a famous brand of Cuban rum, but they contained signatures brought from the nuns’ hiding places.) Two of the boxes were covered on all sides with white paper saying “Project Varela” in English and “Proyecto Varela” in Spanish. They held some 11,020 verified signatures. In Fidel’s Cuba, it was nothing short of astonishing.

Oswaldo was excited but tense, trying to avoid giving any hints to state security that anything was afoot. He picked this moment with extreme care. If state security attacked Beba’s house, they could seize the signatures and destroy the project.

Oswaldo stood in a circle with eight close associates. Looking up at the ceiling as he spoke, he said the signatures would be submitted to the National Assembly in a few days — after former U.S. president Jimmy Carter arrived on May 12 for a week-long visit. There would be extensive international coverage of Carter’s visit, the first by a former U.S. president since Fidel took power. Fidel was unlikely to want arrests or trouble while Carter was in Cuba.

After Oswaldo spoke, he silently passed around a piece of paper. Tomorrow, it read. 10 a.m.

The next morning, the two boxes containing the signed petitions were placed in the back seat of a red 1957 Chevrolet. Oswaldo and his team headed off toward the National Assembly. Several others followed in a small Volkswagen to be the observation team, standing off to watch and report to the world in case of arrests.

The Chevy jolted out of the neighborhood, down the sloping Calle Peñón. State security was caught off guard. Officers raced to their parked cars and motorcycles, but a phalanx of foreign journalists was waiting at the National Assembly — tipped off by Oswaldo’s team — including CNN, Television Española, and reporters from Associated Press and Reuters, as well as others there to cover Carter’s upcoming visit. Two of Oswaldo’s closest associates, Regis Iglesias and Tony Díaz, each grabbed a box, and Oswaldo carried a saddlebag with a list of all who had signed, a letter addressed to the president of the National Assembly and a press statement. Regis defiantly raised his hand, with a thumb and index finger making the L for “liberation.”

Looking out at the crowd, Tony could see state security officers dismounting from their motorcycles and getting out of their cars. But they were beyond the cordon of journalists, so they could never make it in time to block Oswaldo, who stepped inside the building and submitted the signatures — just as the constitution provided. Afterward, Oswaldo declared to the reporters: “A new hope is opened for all Cubans. We are asking that the people of Cuba be given a voice.”

Suddenly, Julio Ruiz Pitaluga, one of the observation team members watching at a distance, lost his composure. He had served 23 years as a political prisoner in Castro’s Cuba. Overcome with emotion, he ran up and embraced Oswaldo, Regis and Tony. “I have been waiting for this day for 42 years,” he said, his voice cracking.

Fear had ruled Cubans’ lives for decades — fear of state security, of informers on every block, of arbitrary punishment for a mere remark. The Varela Project was a stake in the heart of that fear. It was a powerful gesture, though most Cubans knew very little about it, since the Varela Project had been ignored by the state-run press. The following week, Carter, in a speech televised live at the University of Havana, with Fidel sitting directly in front of him, endorsed the petition drive. Oswaldo immediately called a news conference. “Liberation is born from the soul, through a stroke of lightning that God gives to Cubans,” he declared. He challenged Castro’s government to publish the text of the Varela Project petition. Holding it up before the television cameras, he said, “Look how short it is! They’re so afraid of it. This little paper, it contains the popular will.”

Oswaldo was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament in 2002. But upon his return to Cuba, state security cracked down, arresting 75 activists and journalists. In this period, known as the “Black Spring,” Oswaldo was not imprisoned, but he was tormented by the sentences inflicted on his friends. They were released in 2010 after intervention by the Catholic Church.

A decade later, on July 22, 2012, on his way to Santiago de Cuba, still trying to rally people for democracy, Oswaldo was in the back seat of the Hyundai with Cepero, his protege, as they drove deep in the Cuban countryside.

Oswaldo’s long talk included a description of the day-to-day hardships on the island. Production of sugar and tobacco — once mainstays of the economy — had fallen below 1950s levels. For most of Cuba’s 11 million people, living conditions were dire, salaries paltry, food and goods scarce.

By then, Fidel, almost 86 years old, had relinquished power to his brother Raúl, who eased up slightly on the economy but maintained a hard line against dissent.

Several hours into their trip, Carromero, the driver, noticed a car following them. A red Lada, the Soviet-era boxy auto fashioned after the Fiat, was on their tail, though distant. The road was getting worse, and Carromero slowed. Carromero mentioned the red Lada to Oswaldo, who said, “Do not give them any reason to stop us.” Carromero asked Oswaldo whether it was normal to be followed in such a remote area. Yes, Oswaldo replied. But he urged Carromero to remain calm. His tone was reassuring. He said that state security often did this to show who was boss. They wanted everyone to live in fear.

The red Lada disappeared. Oswaldo’s car stopped twice for gas; at the second stop, they grabbed sandwiches. A boy was selling music CDs. Cepero bought two: a compilation of the Beatles, and one by a Cuban artist.

Back on the road, a hot breeze rushed through the car windows. Carromero slipped the Beatles CD in and turned up the volume. Oswaldo was particularly fond of the “Abbey Road” classic “Oh! Darling.” The music and warm air lulled Modig to sleep, while Oswaldo and Cepero sang their hearts out.

Then Carromero noticed something in the mirror. A second car was tailing them, newer than the red Lada, and it was closing in, stubbornly. Carromero saw two men in the car. Oswaldo and Cepero turned around, too. “The Communists,” Cepero said with a tone of scorn, referring to state security. The car’s license plate was blue, the color of government vehicles. Carromero asked what he should do. Oswaldo again said, Don’t give them any reason to stop us. Just keep going.

The car drew closer. Carromero could see the driver’s eyes. Then the other car seemed to leap forward. It charged at the Hyundai. Carromero lost control. The crash that followed has never been satisfactorily investigated. Both Oswaldo and Cepero were killed that day.

Oswaldo Payá fought long and hard for democracy and respect for basic human rights. His dreams were not achieved in his lifetime; the Castro dictatorship remains entrenched. But an important legacy of Oswaldo’s quest was that gradually, painstakingly, despite the obstacles, Cubans began to raise their voices against despotism.

And on one sultry summer afternoon, they became the protagonists of their own history.

On July 11, 2021, a crowd gathered in San Antonio de los Baños, a small town southwest of Havana. Through their pandemic face masks, they chanted “¡Patria y Vida!,” homeland and life, the title of a hugely popular protest song that had become an anthem of discontent, a play on Fidel’s old war cry of “patria o muerte,” homeland or death. The lyrics of the new song declare, “No more lies, my people ask for freedom.” As the crowd marched, more shouts erupted: “¡Libertad! Down with dictatorship! We are not afraid!”

A Facebook video of the protest went viral, sparking the largest spontaneous anti-government demonstration since Fidel took power in 1959. Ultimately, 100,000 or more people in 30 cities and towns expressed fury over shoddy medical care, electricity blackouts, hunger and the regime’s political straitjacket. Sudden and vast, the outpouring of discontent was authentic grass-roots anger — and almost entirely peaceful.

In response to the protests, state security sent plainclothes thugs to beat demonstrators with metal rods. One protester was killed. More than 1,300 people were detained, including teenagers. Many reported physical abuse after being arrested, including jailhouse beatings with batons. Most had done nothing more than shout “¡Libertad!”

As Oswaldo learned, change is hard. A totalitarian state does not simply flutter and faint. The Cuban regime still commands an army and vast security forces; it controls the airwaves, the border and the economy, and it monopolizes all politics. But Oswaldo Payá showed — and the events of July 11, 2021, proved again — that no state, no matter how dictatorial, can imprison an idea forever. The quest for liberty runs free.

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