Passing the torch
CUBANS reading the July 23rd edition of Granma, the state newspaper, might have noticed an unusual mention of a “regrettable” traffic accident near the eastern city of Bayamo. Cuban roads are notoriously badly signposted, badly lit and dangerously potholed, and fatal car accidents are remarkably common. However, they are not usually reported in the media.
The significance of the brief story, which detailed that a hire car had veered off the road and crashed into a tree, would probably have passed most of the paper’s readers by. One of the two fatalities in the accident was listed simply as “Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, resident of Havana”. Payá, who outside Cuba was known as the most prominent and thoughtful dissident of his generation and was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, died mostly unknown in a country where most information is still controlled by the government.
Cuban dissidents have been quick to suggest foul play, even though the driver of the car, Ángel Carromero—the vice-president of the youth wing of Spain’s ruling political party—says it was an accident. Two of Payá’s children have said that the surviving passengers initially said a truck was involved, forcing their father’s car off the road. Payá had often spoken of receiving death threats, including one specifying that he would be killed “before the regime is over”.
Nevertheless, it would have been an unusual moment to eliminate the 60-year-old, who had become a far less prominent figure in recent years. A devout Catholic, it was his faith that first brought him into conflict with Fidel Castro’s Marxist rule in the 1960s. He spent 3 years in a hard labour camp after refusing to transport prisoners during his military service.
His strategy was always entirely pacific and meticulously planned. In the late 1990s he began the Varela Project, which involved collecting signatures to take advantage of a then little-known article in the 1976 Cuban constitution. It allowed citizens to propose laws to be considered by the National Assembly, providing that more than 10,000 signatures of registered voters were gathered. Payá proposed a law that would have guaranteed Cubans freedoms such as a free press, free elections and the freedom to start private businesses. By 2002, he had more than 11,020 signatures, which he delivered to the Assembly.
His suggestion was never considered. Instead, Fidel Castro organised his own petition (and, of course, claimed near unanimous popular support) for changing the constitution to make its socialist nature “permanent”. In 2003, on the day the Iraq war began, many of those who had worked on the Varela Project were rounded up and imprisoned.
It was most likely Payá’s international reputation that helped keep him out of jail. The European Union awarded him the prestigious Sakharov prize for freedom of thought. He became a frequent attendee of European and American diplomatic receptions in Havana (he always opposed the American embargo on Cuba). Some diplomats openly wondered whether he might one day be a post-Castro leader.
It was an implausible suggestion. The soft-spoken Payá’s religious faith always seemed far stronger than his political ambition, and his strength was in one-on-one conversations or carefully scripted critiques. In recent years he appeared to lack the energy to continue what must have seemed a near-impossible struggle against the Castro brothers. And the Cuban authorities successfully ensured that his name was never widely recognised.
His funeral in Havana was attended by leading members of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba, and dozens of fellow critics of the Castro government—including the blogger Yoani Sánchez, who now gets the international plaudits Payá once received. Some arrests were made after anti-government chants began.
For those dissidents of Payá’s era, the event was perhaps politically, as well as personally, poignant. The generation above them remains firmly in power, while the generation below is Cuba’s new opposition.