Ten years ago, Fidel Castro paid a great, but back-handed compliment to the Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya. Under pressure from Paya, Castro orchestrated a nationwide petition campaign to declare the communist dictatorship of Cuba untouchable. Paya contended that like all political systems, the dictatorship was bound to change. Paya’s goal was to make sure that transition to a new system of governance was peaceful, democratic, and inclusive so that all Cubans, both on the island and in exile. could be reunited into one people.
Paya died Sunday, when the car in which he was traveling veered off a highway in eastern Cuba. His family suspects the vehicle was forced off the road. Whatever the cause of his death, Paya ought to be most remembered as a person who exemplified and furthered the hopes for a transition to a democratic Cuba in which the differences among Cubans are resolved without violence.
During a reporting trip to Cuba in 2000, I met with Paya in the old section of Havana. My Cuban-born companion and I were terrified that we were being tailed by the Cuban secret police. When we finally got to see Paya, he had a quiet smile on his lips as we recounted our furtive scurrying around the neighborhood. As an unapologetic Catholic, he had endured harassment since his youth, but he knew that the authorities rarely bothered opponents of the regime when they talked to foreign journalists.
The government cracked down, however, when dissidents sought to engage the democratic energies of the Cuban people. And beginning in the 1990s, Paya had spearheaded a project that peacefully and democratically threatened the foundation’s regime. “We don’t want violent change,” he said. “We don’t want the strongest in charge.”
Under the Cuban constitution, anyone who got 10,000 signatures could present a petition to the National Assembly, and Paya had allies throughout the island collecting signatures so that the legislature would have to vote on freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and the right to open a business — anathema in communist Cuba.
In addition, Paya wanted the United States to end the trade embargo, which would remove Castro’s prime excuse for political repression and economic failure. And finally, Paya proposed a peaceful dialogue between Cubans at home and abroad to knit the society back together after the radical disruption caused by Castro’s revolution in 1959. He called his campaign the Varela Project, after a Cuban patriot.
Between 2000 and 2002, the project gathered steam, with growing international attention, which culminated in a speech by former President Jimmy Carter in Havana urging that Cubans get the right to “change laws peacefully by a direct vote.” Paya’s people had collected signatures from 11,000 brave Cubans, enough to get the attention of the National Assembly if the constitution were being followed.
Castro reacted to Paya’s signature campaign by ordering up a petition of his own, which millions of Cubans signed under the baleful gaze of the regime, declaring the totalitarian system untouchable. In March 2003, Castro ordered the arrest of many of Paya’s signature-gatherers. In October 2003, Paya did present a 14,000-signature petition calling for human rights to the National Assembly, but after that his campaign seemed to fizzle. By 2008, according to WikiLeaks, US diplomats were saying that Paya, who was approaching 60, had lost touch with younger dissidents.
Paya persevered, remaining as serene as when I met him, and one prominent younger dissident was impressed. “I never saw him break down or yell or insult his political opponents,” Yoani Sanchez, 37, wrote on her blog. “The great lesson he left us is his equanimity, pacifism, putting ethics above differences, the conviction that through civic action and through legal action, an inclusive Cuba is closer to us.”
Cuban security officers arrested 40 to 50 dissidents at Paya’s funeral Tuesday. Though he may not have been the viable presence he was a decade ago, the regime is still worried about Paya’s ideas and the reaction they can stir in Cubans.
Despite Castro’s contrived petition campaign, no political system is irrevocable, especially one that throttles the expression of the people’s wishes. Paya’s legacy is the outline of a peaceful way forward for Cuba — one in which the US embargo is lifted, exiles are welcomed home, human rights are protected, and the people get a free choice of the system under which they are governed.