Cuba's Catholic Dissident: The Saga of Oswaldo Pay
Dissident movements never get much traction in Communist Cuba. That is partly because Fidel Castro is vastly more charismatic than the stone-faced apparatchiks of the old Soviet bloc and partly because his security apparatus would tax Orwell’s imagination. Either way, El Comandante has always been able to put a lid on dissident leaders before their faces became as well known as Lech Walesa or Nelson Mandela.
But Cuban dissidents have never had much spiritual backup, either. In Poland, Walesa’s Solidarity movement was sponsored by the Catholic Church from the start, a fact that automatically gave it the support of 90 percent of the population. History is full of evidence that faith can be a more resilient bond for democratic change than politics, and Fidel Castro is nothing if not a keen student of history. He proved this early in his dictatorship by purging Cuba of its Catholic clergy as well as its Catholic enthusiasm.
So it is not surprising to learn that Cuba’s first bona fide dissident movementone that has seen some 75 of its leaders imprisoned by Castro this yearcan in many ways be traced to a small Catholic church, Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows), on Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth, formerly called the Isla de Pinos, or Isle of Pines). It was there that a teenage dissident named Oswaldo Payá spent his free time as a political prisoner for three years, from 1969 to 1972. But it was also a spiritual refuge, where Payá came to the conclusion that inept military actions like the Bay of Pigs were not the way to challenge Castro. The more effective approach in the long run, he reasoned, would be a nonviolent, grass-roots, faith-based campaign of oppositionthe Christian Liberation Movementwhich today has gained more support inside Cuba than any other since Castro took power in 1959.
Oswaldo Payá, in fact, is the first Cuban dissident ever to be compared with the likes of Lech Walesa. It’s a premature likening, to be sureespecially since Castro essentially put Payá’s top management out of commission last March with one of his most severe crackdowns in decades. But the fact that Castro did not jail Payáeven Castro realizes what an international outcry that would provokeis in itself proof that Payá is an unprecedented irritant for the Cuban regime.
Just as important, howeverand something that has gone largely and strangely unremarked upon in my professionis the Catholic faith that fuels Payá’s mission. Even less noticed, I believe, is the way Payá’s mission has in turn helped strengthen a once moribund Cuban Catholic Church. This, the 51-year-old Payá told me in a recent interview, has finally become a duel between power and spirit in Cuba.
That standoff started early, but on a more personal level. Payá was born in a Havana parish called La Parroquia del Cerro, where his family were devout Catholics. Showing at a young age that he could match Castro for hard-headedness, Payá was the only youngster in his primary school who refused to become a member of the Communist Youth after the 1959 revolution.
Most Catholic clergy and laypeople had backed Castro’s overthrow of the right-wing strongman Fulgencio Batista, but their attitudes turned when Castro adopted Communism. That, and the fact that Cuba’s bishops had remained loyal to Batista, was bound to bring the Communists’ wrath down on the church. From 1960 through 1961 all Catholic media were abolished, Catholic schools were expropriated and more than 3,500 priests and nuns were exiled. Castro left about 200 priests to minister to six million Cubans, recalls Miami’s Auxiliary Bishop Augustín Román, one of the exiled priests. It put Cuba’s Catholics to sleep.
Not all of them. Payá was part of a small but tenacious crowd of activist Catholic youth who provoked ridicule and worse in their high school cafeterias. After publicly denouncing the violent Soviet crackdown in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968, Payá got hauled off to a work camp on the Isla de Pinos.
But it was there that Payá changed from an aggressive boy, always hurling acerbic criticism of Castro’s regime, into a more mature leader, says a longtime friend of Payá, the Rev. Armando Pérez, associate pastor of our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. When Payá discovered Nuestra Señora de los Dolores in the island town of Nueva Gerona, he found it locked up. He sent a request to the Havana bishop for the keys and opened up a sanctuary that camp guards let him use as his prison home when he wasn’t working at the island’s quarry 60 hours a week.
Payá set up a virtual mission there, giving religious speeches, inviting in sick and elderly islanders and pursuing what he calls a more mystic life. It made him, he says, both tougher and more stoicand more resolved to follow the methods he had heard about in the U.S. civil rights movement: fighting the system nonviolently from within the system. He discovered a pacifist method more compatible with his Christianity, says Bishop Román. He realized that you can bring down a house in two wayswith a hurricane or with termites. The former just wasn’t going to happen in Cuba, but the latter is still possible.
The best place for the termites to munch, Payá decided, was Castro’s own Constitution, which on its face, if hardly ever in its execution, allows for democratic niceties like multiple-candidate elections and referendums. But to be taken seriously as a patriotic Cuban politico, Payá had to thwart one of Castro’s favorite modes of attack: accusing dissidents of being tools of the United States.
So even when he was offered a chance to escape to Miami during the massive Mariel boatlift of 1980, Payá instead opted to stay in Cuba for the rest of his life. He took a university degree in physics and became an engineer, specializing in the repair of hospital equipmentwork to which he still travels by bicycle each day in Havana. (Many, in fact, speculate that the real reason Castro does not jail Payá is that, with Cuba’s economy so ramshackle, the government cannot afford to lose talented medical technicians.)
Nor can Castro accuse Payá of promoting the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. Payá does not call for abolishing it. But like the Catholic Church, he has repeatedly expressed opposition to those aspects of the embargo that hurt Cuba’s 11 million people, especially the recently lifted U.S. ban on food and medicine sales to Cuba.
But the 1980’s would turn out to be a decade of more religious than political significance for Cuba. After a quarter-century of dormancy, the island’s Catholic Church got a whiff of smelling salts as Pope John Paul II hit the international scene. By 1986, the church in Cuba was deep into what it called the National Cuban Church Meeting, known by its Spanish acronym ENECan exercise in soul-searching and revival that may have saved Cuba’s church from irrelevance if not eventual extinction.
If Payá and other dissidents thought the ENEC would fuel their political activism, they were mistaken. Cuba’s bishops, as well as the Vatican, decided that it made little sense for the church to confront Castro when the church in Cuba itself was still so threadbare. Cuba could not be Poland. As a result, the Cuban church opted for a controversial policy of accommodation with the Communist regime as the only way to rebuild Cuban Catholicisma policy that to a large degree still stands.
Characteristically, Payá pushed. The church, he argued, should not risk the impression that it cared more about its own corporate development in Cuba than it did about human rightsespecially since that might end up actually alienating Cubans from the church. The Castro government insists on protecting Cuba’s sovereignty, says Payá. My point is, by defending Cubans’ civil rights, we are also defending Cuba’s sovereignty.
Whether the church liked it or not, Payá would become its political voice in Cuba. In 1987, with church aid, he started up the magazine Pueblo de Dios (People of God), which regularly called on Cuba’s Catholics to be in the vanguard of the human rights discussion. A year later, however, under intense pressure from the government, Cuba’s bishops shut down the magazine. Undeterred, Payá immediately founded the Christian Liberation Movement, known by its Spanish initials, M.C.L.
By now Payá was married with three childrenand a growing target for Cuba’s security police, who often (and still do, he says) shadowed him on the streets from as close as a few feet away. But it was also a measure of Payá’s growing popularity with Cubans that, while police often took him into custody for questioning, they never imprisoned him outrighteven after he and the M.C.L. began a grass-roots dialogue on a national human rights referendum in 1991. This is the first totally peaceful movement for change in the history of Cuba, says Payá. They did not know how to confront that. Instead, Castro supporters ransacked Payá’s Havana house and defaced it with graffiti that read Traitor and C.I.A.
In 1992 Payá began his attempts to run for Cuba’s Parliament as an opposition candidate. He was, predictably, arrested; but again, he was never imprisoned. That allowed him to go on building a broader grass-roots following, especially as Cuba’s post-Soviet-aid economy hit rock bottom in the 90’s. By 1996 Payá and the M.C.L. felt strong enough to start the Varela Projecta petition campaign to get the necessary 10,000 signatures that, under the 1976 Constitution, legalized a national referendum. Payá sought a plebiscite on five basic human rights issues: free speech, free assembly, multiparty elections, broader free enterprise and the freeing of political prisoners.
But it was the project’s name that was particularly shrewd. Varela was Padre Felix Varela, a Cuban Catholic priest who in the mid-19th century helped spark the movement for Cuba’s independence from Spain, which it eventually won in 1898, and freedom for black slaves. As a result, the Varela Project gathered all the more momentum, because it emerged on the eve of Pope John Paul II’s historic 1998 visit to Cuba. That event further galvanized not only the Cuban Church but also Catholic dissidents like Payáand the ongoing efforts of Cuban Catholics to win sainthood for Padre Varela. It drove home for people, says Payá, that we [the M.C.L.] are first and foremost persons of faith. They realized that it’s much harderimpossible, reallyfor a government to crush that sort of thing or keep it silent.
At this point, however, an important question arises. Who was gaining more energy from whom: Payá from the Cuban Church, or the Cuban Church from Payá? It’s easy to imagine Payá taking sustenance from Catholicism’s revival in Cuba; but it is hard to dismiss the notion that while Payá was out crusading for democratic reform in the name of Catholicism, his personal popularity helped draw more Cubans into the church’s fold. More likely, says Bishop Román, Payá and the church have been engaged in a symbiosis that is all too rarely acknowledged publicly: The two receive too much from each other at this point to say otherwise.
Either way, Payá was on the verge of his most critical vindication. By 2002 the Varela Project had gathered more than 11,000 signatures, from Havana to Santiago in the east and Pinar del Rio in the west. The most striking thing was that Payá had accomplished this by word of mouth, securing legal signatures through the island’s catacomb-like system known as resolverthe Cuban expression for finding ingenious ways of solving problems like a chronic lack of food, auto parts or access to mass media to promote an opposition campaign.
And then, during former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s equally historic visit to Cuba that year, Varela had its mass media moment. In a speech to Castro and a host of Communist V.I.P.’s in Havana, which Castro allowed to be broadcast nationwide, Carter not only mentioned the Varela Project but championed it. Suddenly every Cuban household knew about itnot only that there was a constitutionally sanctioned petition drive taking place on their streets, but that it was a Catholic-inspired campaign.
Overnight, Payá had gained Lech Walesa-style status both inside and outside of Cuba. Castro tried to counterattack by dismissing the Varela petitions as illegitimatesomething not even the right-wing Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet dared do in the 1980’s when the opposition successfully petitioned for a constitutional referendum on his rule. Castro mobilized massive marches in support of his government and held his own special referendum, which, not surprisingly, resoundingly affirmed Cuban socialism as the island’s irrevocable system.
But it did little to dampen Payá’s new fame. He won the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for human rights last December. Vaclav Havel, who led the velvet revolution that toppled Communism in Czechoslovakia, nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. And this past spring, Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Film Festival canceled its screening of Oliver Stone’s Castro documentary, Comandante, and showed instead a documentary on Payá. More important, within a year after Carter’s visit, the Varela Project claimed to have garnered an additional 30,000 signatures.
Eventually, Castro had to strike with a harder fisthence the arrests, convictions and lengthy prison sentences, as many as 28 years, for 75 Cuban dissidents this past spring, more than 50 of whom were Payá lieutenants. They were accused of treason for taking aid from the United States, which Castro insists is poised to invade Cuba now as it invaded Iraq.
The crackdown makes it easier to understand why Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana recently insisted that the Cuban church cannot and will not be on the side of the opposition, the same way you cannot ask the church to support the government. Ortega’s critics, however, say he is essentially aiding the latter by being so indifferent to the former.
All of which makes this the most triumphant and yet the most precarious moment in Payá’s dissident career. Critics both inside and outside Cuba have suggested that Payá unnecessarily provoked Castro by flaunting his international celebrity. But Payá insists that his movement has let a genie out of the bottle that will eventually succeed, either during Castro’s lifetime or shortly thereaftermeaning that democratic change post-Castro might be easier now that a nonviolent, grass-roots reform spirit has finally penetrated into the island’s civic veins, largely through the Varela Project. What’s more, as Payá showed during a visit to Miami this year, most of the once bellicose exile community has signed on to his strategy. We’ve helped destroy the myth that a majority of exiles are war mongers, he says.
Meanwhile, the Cuban church and Payá will continue their delicate partnership. The church has in fact been building a stronger social backbone of late. Shortly before last spring’s wave of arrests, Cardinal Ortega did make an unusually impassioned call for Castro to address the increasingly bleak economic straits of Cuba, where most workers make about $15 a month. Last month, he and Cuba’s 13-member bishops’ conference urged clemency for the jailed dissidents and criticized Castro for making his official ideology even more intolerant of late. But Cuba’s bishops still seem as hoarse about human rights under Castro as they were under Batista. Payá may be right when he claims that despite Castro’s crackdowns, his movement will keep growing. The question is whether the spiritual backup his movement needs, now more than ever, will grow as well.