By Ruth Morris | Sun Sentinel
Men with binoculars have appeared on a balcony across from his church. Unscrewing a phone jack, he finds a bugging device. His creaky old bicycle goes missing—three times.
A leading Cuban dissident, Oswaldo PayŠ lives in a world populated by not-so-secret agents, seemingly scripted from a Soviet-era spy novel. The pressure is meant to keep everyone second-guessing, he said, and to drive wedges between allies.
“I don’t think I’m crazy,” joked the three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, of the government surveillance. “But all crazy people say that.”
Humor is a fleeting refuge for PayŠ and other dissidents confronting what they describe as a stepped-up government campaign to stifle their calls for change.
The state still holds 61 of the 75 dissidents rounded up in a nationwide crackdown in 2003, plus 15 arrested in July. Most are serving lengthy prison terms; PayŠ says three are on hunger strike.
Other political activists said they have recently endured hurled rocks, death threats and broken windshields, as well as arbitrary detentions.
“It’s not a good time. Since early July there’s been a real wave of arrests and harassment, and acts of repugnance,” said Joanne Mariner, Cuba analyst for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, referring to crowds that frequently descend on dissidents’ homes yelling insults and threats. “Being a dissident in Cuba is an incredibly precarious life.”
PayŠ says his own National Dialogue project, which gathers and synthesizes suggestions for bringing democracy to Cuba, has fallen behind schedule as government agents intercept participants and confiscate documents.
“There is an escalation in the violence,” he said, accusing state agents of beating a dissident’s wife last weekend. “They are very aggressive, and they have a sense of impunity.”
PayŠ, founder of the Christian Liberation Movement in Cuba, gained international attention for anchoring the Varela Project, which introduces steps to guarantee Cubans specific freedoms. The manifesto garnered 25,000 signatures and demanded a referendum on civic freedoms, business restrictions and electoral law.
Former President Jimmy Carter publicized the project in a 2002 visit to Cuba, a rare moment in the sun for PayŠ, although the project was later rejected as unconstitutional.
His everyday life, meanwhile, is one of modest means and prying eyes.
Polite and serious, PayŠ wears big, square-framed glasses and often looks slightly preoccupied. His front room, where he holds many of his day-to-day meetings, consists of little more than four rocking chairs and a beagle named Kati. His son’s molecular science homework is scrawled on a white board. Down the corridor, his wife fries plantains and his daughter hangs laundry. Without an Internet connection, foreigners and government functionaries are virtually the only Cubans with legal access, PayŠ relies largely on handwritten letters and what he assumes are intercepted phone conversations to stay in touch with jailed colleagues.
State agents have snapped pictures of his family on vacation, he says, and he suspects they keep careful records of the friends who come and go.
“People call here as if this were an institute,” he said, as he reviewed telephone messages, some cursive, some strained. “They don’t realize this is a persecuted family.”
His political discourse jumps from sullen reflections on political repression to harsh critiques of the international community for a soft-pedal approach to Cuban human rights violations.
“When the problem is slavery under communism, there are no concerts,” he said, referring to recent aid concerts for the victims of natural disasters, or to support debt forgiveness for poor nations. “There is no poetry. No attacks of hysteria in the street. We have had to walk alone.”
He insists on homegrown democratic reforms. This point sets PayŠ apart from other members of the dissident movement, who have embraced U.S. support and U.S. nudging toward free market reforms.
“No one has to choose between social justice and savage capitalism. We can’t apply models and recipes,” said PayŠ. “What we want is a pause, like that song ... Stop! In the Name of Love.” He froze in thought, stood up, and played the song on the stereo.
The Cuban government portrays dissidents as greedy “mercenaries,” bankrolled by the U.S. government. Many of those in jail were accused of working through the United States to undermine the socialist regime of President Fidel Castro.
The U.S. Interests Section in Havana says it supplies books, office supplies and Internet access to dissidents, but no money.
Asked how he deals with the pressure of constant surveillance, PayŠ said he and his family have had years to adapt. He mopped his forehead with a handkerchief and nodded at four men on a park bench, staring, as he left church.
“We can never pretend we go unperceived,” he said.
Note: The Havana Journal owns OswaldoPaya.com and we will hold it for appropriate use, most likely for Mr. Paya someday.