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Posted May 12, 2003 by publisher in Castro's Cuba

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Meet the intractable dissident who provoked Cuba’s alarming new crackdown on dissent

By TIM PADGETT | Time Magazine

Oswaldo Paya is something Cuban President Fidel Castro has rarely, if ever, faced: a dissident as hardheaded as he is. When Castro took power in 1959, Paya was the only kid in his Havana primary school who refused to become a Communist Youth member. In high school, after openly criticizing the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he was sent to a labor camp for three years. Rather than escape to Miami in the 1980 Mariel boatlift, he stayed in Cuba to work for democratic reform. Now his doggedness has prompted one of Castro’s most ironfisted crackdowns: scores of Paya’s fellow dissidents have been arrested for treason and given lengthy prison terms. Paya, 51, says he’s undeterred. “We’re the first nonviolent force for change this island has ever known,” he told TIME by phone from Havana. “Castro can’t crush that, no matter how hard he tries.”

Paya, an engineer who bicycles to his job as a hospital-equipment technician, is also complicating George W. Bush’s policy toward Cuba. The U.S. President is expected to give an important Cuba policy speech next week. Given the jailing of the dissidents and the stunning executions of three Cubans for the noncapital crime of trying to hijack a ferry to Miami last month, the Administration’s natural inclination is to hammer El Comandante. But with some 40,000 Cubans in recent years having openly endorsed Paya’s campaign for a popular vote on expanding freedoms, his Christian Liberation Movement (M.C.L.) has produced what most Cuba watchers agree is the first real chance for democratic change on the island. If Bush is too bellicose, he risks provoking further retaliatory measures by Castro, possibly even a crippling of Paya’s movement. “The dynamic has changed,” says Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami. “We finally have strong democratic players on the ground in Cuba.” Garcia’s organization once wanted Bush to push for stiffer sanctions against Cuba but has now dropped that demand.

In the past, Castro, 76, managed to neutralize dissidents before they became globally known, like Lech Walesa in Poland or Corazon Aquino in the Philippines. But Paya’s celebrity is beginning to rival Castro’s. During his visit to Cuba last year, ex-President Jimmy Carter hailed Paya in a speech broadcast to every Cuban household. Paya won the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for human rights last December. Vaclav Havel, who led the “velvet revolution” that toppled communism in Czechoslovakia, has nominated Paya for the Nobel Peace Prize. Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival last week canceled its screening of Oliver Stone’s documentary on Castro, Comandante, and showed instead a film about Paya. All this attention probably keeps him out of jail.

Paya, a devout Roman Catholic whose model for action is the work of civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr., is in it for the long term. “Paya is unique,” says Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch in Washington. “He is openly challenging Castro’s system by using the system itself.” Paya, for example, has at various times in the past publicly announced his intention to run as an opposition candidate in Castro’s one-party elections, a transgression for which he was once arrested. But Paya’s most effective tool has been his petition drive, the Varela Project. Under Castro’s 1976 constitution, a national referendum requires just 10,000 signatures. Paya’s movement has so far gathered some 40,000, calling for a plebiscite on free speech, multiparty elections and increased private enterprise.

Castro peremptorily refuses to recognize the petitions. But they have spawned a grass-roots dissident network that finally spooked him into action. In March, with the aid of agents who had infiltrated the island’s opposition cells, Castro rounded up more than 75 dissidents and journalists, most of them Paya lieutenants. In a speech on May 1, Castro branded them “mercenaries on the payroll of Bush’s Hitler-like government,” which he claimed is poised to invade Cuba.

Paya says that when he goes out, he is shadowed by government agents, who sometimes follow just a few feet away. Despite the harassment, he says the arrests and repression are only broadening his base. Vivanco, however, fears that Castro is succeeding in weakening the movement by decapitating its upper management and thinks the U.S.‘s handling of the issue could determine the movement’s fate.

For Bush, that means walking a fine line between backing Paya and keeping U.S. support below Castro’s radar. To demonstrate that he’s not a U.S. pawn, Paya has made it a point to keep his movement at arm’s length from diplomats like James Cason, head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Cason infuriated Castro this year with a stepped-up campaign of visits with, and economic aid to, certain Cuban dissidents who Paya claims did not include the M.C.L. or Varela members. Castro seized on the actions, claiming that all dissidents were being paid to help the U.S. destabilize Cuba.

Paya says he would discourage Bush from overtly announcing a big increase in economic aid to Cuban dissidents, which amounts to less than $10 million a year. But that leaves few other options for the White House. To further squeeze Castro economically, Bush could restrict the remittances Cuban Americans send to relatives on the island which total almost $1 billion a year but that would alienate a key Florida voting bloc. The Administration has already barred U.S. citizens from nonacademic, “people-to-people” visits to Cuba. It could heighten its crackdown on Americans who flout the ban on tourist travel to Cuba, but that would rekindle an already heated congressional debate on the failed 41-year-old embargo. Like many other Cuban dissidents, Paya opposes the embargo because it gives Castro a convenient excuse for Cuba’s faltering economy.

The United Nations, which in a stunning display of bad timing re-elected Cuba to its human-rights commission last month, has given Castro little more than a slap on the wrist for the arrests and executions. The same is true for Cuba’s Latin American neighbors. But many political and cultural leaders in Europe, once home to legions of Castro apologists, have turned their back on him. The E.U. has postponed negotiation of an economic-aid package for Cuba. Portugal’s Nobel-prizewinning novelist, Jose Saramago, once a Castro admirer, wrote in a stinging editorial last month, “This is as far as I go” with Cuba’s revolution. Other famous politicians and artists have followed suit.

At the same time, Paya, who was widely cheered during a visit to Miami this year, has helped bring that city’s once rabidly anti-Castro politics toward a potentially more constructive center. Wresting the Cuba debate away from the pro-and anti-Castro extremists may be Paya’s most helpful accomplishment. “This isn’t about warmongering anymore,” he says. “It’s a duel between power and spirit.” For now, Castro’s power has the upper hand; but for four decades, Paya’s spirit has been indomitable and he insists he’s not about to give up.

With reporting by Perry Bacon Jr./Washington

Although Castro hasn’t touched the well-known Paya, many of his lieutenants have recently been sentenced to long jail terms

Marta Beatriz Roque, 58
Independent economist and Castro critic

Raul Rivero, 57
Journalist who has written for American publications

Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, 41
Longtime human-rights activist

Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia, 32
Captain of the Varela Project in Santiago (no photo available). At Ferrer’s controversial trial, prosecutors originally asked the court to impose the death penalty

  1. Follow up post #1 added on May 16, 2003 by I-taoist with 213 total posts

    Mr. Padgett,

    I invite your read of my recent post in the “Havana Journal”.  Have you been to Cuba?

    John Bomar

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