|Posted on Tue, Dec. 17, 2002||The Miami Herald|
Castro foe's human rights award puts world spotlight on Cuba
At age 16, Cuban government opponent Oswaldo Payá Sardińas was ordered to a labor camp under the pretense of mandatory military service years after Fidel Castro had taken control of the island.
For 10 hours a day over three years, Payá and other youths deemed ''counterrevolutionary'' broke rocks and carried heavy sacks of cement mix.
''They told us that we were being punished for being gusanos [worms],'' Payá said in a recent telephone interview from Havana. ``We were treated like animals.''
More than three decades later, at 50, Payá still carries the burdens he struggled with while at the so-called Unidad de Castigo or Punishment Camp. He remains opposed to Castro's government and is trying to break the socialist rock that he believes has weighed down the Cuban people for 43 years.
His efforts as the head of the Christian Liberation Movement and coordinator of a grass-roots initiative known as the Varela Project have earned him the respect and admiration of supporters in and outside of Cuba. Today, he is to receive the European Union's top human rights award at a ceremony in Strasbourg, France, after receiving last-minute approval from the Cuban government to travel.
For the European leadership, once loath to criticize Cuba's communist government, the prize confirms a significant change in attitude toward the Castro regime and sends an implicit message that democratic change is overdue. For Payá, the award represents recognition of a lifetime of work dedicated to opposing Castro, and clear acknowledgement of his emergence as a leading voice in the opposition.
''Since I was old enough to reason, I was not in agreement with this regime,'' said Payá, a father of three who fixes medical equipment for a living.
Over the past year, Payá's courage has been praised by some of the world's most prominent human rights leaders, including former President Jimmy Carter and Czech President Vaclav Havel.
In addition to the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought he will receive today, Payá also was awarded the highest honor by the National Democratic Institute in Washington earlier this year and has been touted as a worthy recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
''What makes Oswaldo Payá's courageous, peaceful struggle so compelling is that through this unique Varela Project, he and the organizers have in a concrete way given voice to the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people,'' said Kenneth Wollack, Democratic Institute president.
The Varela Project, a petition drive signed by more than 11,000 people across the island, seeks a referendum on whether there should be a sweeping democratic overhaul, including greater personal and political freedoms.
The unprecedented campaign is led by a soft-spoken man with a professorial demeanor. He is described by others -- and views himself -- as a family man with moral convictions whose religious beliefs have shaped his political ideology.
''I've had no other face than that of a Catholic who is opposed to this regime,'' Payá said. ``My family suffers the consequences of my actions day after day. Our faith is the only thing that gets us through it.''
The international attention he has received has forced the Cuban government to recognize that opposition on the island exists, even as it charges that dissidents are nothing more than agents paid by the United States.
Payá's outspoken demands for human rights and religious freedom also have meant a life of official harassment. He has been detained numerous times over the years and says he is constantly under surveillance by state security. He receives threatening phone calls frequently and his home is sometimes defaced with paint. Just last week, Payá's house was vandalized with bumper stickers and the flag of a group that has carried out paramilitary attacks against Cuba's communist government.
Payá said putting his family through difficult times has been hard. But even more painful has been ``getting the cold shoulder, the contempt or disrespect and even attacks from those who should be in solidarity -- both inside and outside of the island. That's the hardest thing.''
Payá is the third oldest of eight children, five brothers and three sisters, including a stepsister. Four siblings, including Payá, remain on the island. Three are in Spain and one is in Miami.
''I'm from a family that was targeted because of our religious practices and because we didn't conform to government rules,'' Payá said. ``I grew up with a great sense of political consciousness.''
Payá was not the only one in the family who became a target. One brother also had to endure military camp, another was not allowed to complete his education and lost his job in the telecommunications field and a third, who now lives in Miami, was repeatedly thrown out of school.
When their mother, Iraida, became gravely ill from cancer, none of the Payá brothers in exile was granted permission by the Cuban government to visit her in Havana. She died two years ago at age 70. Their father, Alejandro, hasn't seen some of his children for years.
''Politics has been the weapon used against my family,'' Payá said. ``When this regime is unable to dominate, can't break the spirit of a family, it gets very disturbed. It's like there is a fear of those with no fear.''
Reinaldo Payá, an older brother who practices general medicine at an HMO in Hialeah, left his homeland in 1988 and came to the United States via Spain.
''I'm the supposed CIA agent, the worm, the spy, according to the Cuban government,'' said the 53-year-old physician who describes his younger brother ``as a humble, Christian man.''
Reinaldo Payá said that the international recognition his brother has received has helped to dispel the Cuban government's assertion that dissidents on the island are paid U.S. agents.
''Their struggle is now under a world spotlight,'' he said. ``The Cuban government for the first time is faced with an opposition within the island that is recognized by the international community.
''I am very proud of the recognition my brother has received but I also feel cautious because Castro's government is still in power,'' Reinaldo Payá said. ``Still, pressure from outside is building and that is going to force the issue. At some point, they will have to face the question [about democratic changes]. Every day, it's more imminent.''
Raised as devout Catholics, the Payás continued to practice their faith even after Castro declared Cuba an atheist state.
Oswaldo Payá has always been an active member of the church. As a teenager, he taught catechism classes -- the principles and practices of Catholic belief -- and participated in various youth groups. His leadership skills began to blossom as a young adult, when Payá participated in a national ecclesiastical gathering for Cuban Christians in 1986 and called on the church to push for freedom of religion. At the time, an attitude of resignation pervaded the laity and ecclesiastical hierarchy insofar as defying a rigidly anticlerical government, Payá said.
''The tendency was to reject everything that the state opposed,'' he said. ``The position I planted was of liberation.''
ATTENTION IN MIAMI
Payá's call for religious freedom made waves on and off the island and caught the attention of other government opponents, particularly in Miami.
Longtime exile leader José Ignacio Rasco said the young Payá ''stood out'' because he advocated a nonviolent transition to democratic change.
''He was trying to find a peaceful transition without hate and without grudges,'' said Rasco, a founder and past president of the Christian Democratic Party, the Miami affiliate to Payá's Christian Liberation Movement.
After years of collaboration by phone, the retired lawyer and university professor finally met Payá about five years ago in Miami. It was the only other time Payá has left the island. He came to Miami to seek medical attention for his oldest son and remained in Miami for about a month, but said he never considered staying permanently.
''He is a very solid person; valiant, tenacious, ethical and a good Christian,'' said Rasco, 76, a former classmate of Castro's who left Cuba in 1960. ``Payá is an evolutionist, not a revolutionist. He believes that there is no need for blood, death and hate. He believes that the vote is a better weapon than the bullet because it is permanent and less traumatic.''
Rasco is careful to refer to Payá as a government opponent rather than a dissident.
''A dissident is someone who was with the government then changes his mind. Payá never agreed with the government,'' Rasco said. ``His posture is so clear it frightens the regime. It also has earned him respect. Payá is a born leader. He is destined to play a fundamental role in the future of Cuba.''
Even those who have ideological differences with Payá's approach praise his efforts.
''The fact that a government opponent is recognized internationally is important,'' Oscar Elías Biscet, another prominent dissident in Havana, said on Dec. 6 -- just hours before he was rearrested after being released from a three-year prison term. ``It is an important merit not just for Mr. Payá but also for the efforts and desire of liberty of the Cuban people. He is a person who fights for the good of the population.''
Said another island dissident, Martha Beatriz Roque: ``Even though I do not support the Varela Project, that doesn't take away from the fact that Payá has been a powerful dissident who has been fighting for the people of Cuba for many years. He deserves this international recognition, undoubtedly.''
Payá said his memory of aching muscles while breaking rocks as a teenager hardened his resolve to push for change.
He studied nights to earn two university degrees, one in education and the other in engineering. Even as his brothers were kicked out of school and he too was often on the brink of being expelled, Payá was allowed to finish his studies.
Payá still lives in the same Havana neighborhood, known as El Cerro, where he was raised. He still attends the same centuries-old church where he taught catechism, married his wife Ofelia and baptized his children, Oswaldo, 14, Rosa María, 13, and Reinaldo, 10.
The 11,000-signature petition Payá turned in to the National Assembly six months ago is still awaiting a formal response. After Carter spoke about the Varela Project in a speech that was broadcast to the Cuban population during his visit in May, the government held its own petition drive to keep the socialist system in place.
According to the government, more than eight million islanders, out of a population of 11 million, signed the petition declaring that the current system should remain ''untouchable.'' The National Assembly later endorsed the move to keep the socialist framework of the constitution.
That hasn't diminished Payá's drive. Supporters continue to gather signatures, with which they plan to confront the government again. They are convinced that change will come. Someday.
Since his work began to attract worldwide acclamation, Payá has consistently shared the spotlight with his compatriots through words that likely will be repeated at the podium in France: ``I receive this prize in the name of the Cuban people.''