When Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas left the bayfront conference room at The Miami Herald on that clear winter day in January of 2003, many of the journalists gathered to meet him felt we had been in the presence of someone special — a human-rights stalwart with resolute ideas and the potential to lead Cuba into a peaceful, prosperous future.
I remember thinking that, after four-plus decades of dictatorship, this was the kind of leader Cubans deserved — an eloquent yet level-headed man whose force was not loud rhetoric or pandering, but an unflinching determination to make the powerful listen to the millions of Cubans on the island eager to see change.
Payá made a humble but impressive presentation of his Varela Project, a coordinated effort throughout Cuba to gather signatures to present at the highest levels of government asking for democratic reforms to the one-party system, respect for human rights and freedom for political prisoners.
He and followers of his Christian Liberation Movement had collected some 11,000 signatures and counting. Such a brave, massive undertaking was unheard of, and Payá was recognized by the international community in 2002 with the prestigious Sakharov Prize for the Freedom of Thought.
His brief visit to Miami was one of those rare moments of hope in the aftermath of the historic island tour of Pope John Paul II in 1998.
The Castro regime had allowed a prominent and respected dissident to leave the country and return. Later, with the harsh crackdown and arrest of 75 dissidents that Black Spring, a lot of hope dissipated. Yet Payá soldiered on with his peaceful activism.
Almost a decade later, Payá is dead at 60 — the second Cuban dissident leader to die within months and under questionable circumstances.
This admirable man who advocated peaceful change died Sunday in a car wreck that the Cuban government calls an “accident” but his family says occurred after another car purposely ran his off the road. He had received threats and his car had been run off the road before in Havana.
Last October, Ladies in White founder Laura Pollán, 63, died in a Havana hospital seven days after she sought medical attention for shortness of breath. Although her death was attributed to a respiratory illness, her family suspects foul play, as she had been pricked by something during one of the many attacks by Cuban police.
In what other country do two of the most charismatic leaders of a dissident movement die one after the other — in suspicious circumstances — and governance by police and mob club goes on as if nothing had occurred? In Cuba, where the name of the game is to buy the totalitarian regime’s aging leaders and their accomplices more time.
At Payá’s funeral Tuesday, some 25 dissidents — including Guillermo Fariñas, awarded the Sakharov Prize in 2010 — were kicked, clubbed, dragged and shoved into a bus, and detained in the outskirts of Havana to prevent them from attending the burial.
But inside and outside the church where Payá’s body lay in repose, the chants were heard as unshakeable as the man they honored: “¡Libertad! ¡Libertad!”