When thousands of people took to the streets last year chanting “Freedom!” in Cuba, it was one of those rare moments in which the island’s citizens took matters into their own hands and became protagonists of their own history, fulfilling the hopes of longtime opposition leader Oswaldo Payá, who encouraged Cubans to do as much in a 1987 leaflet criticizing the lack of liberties in the communist country.
Payá spent decades working and mobilizing others for this moment, including gathering signatures for a citizens’ petition to change the political system through a referendum, the Varela Project. But he did not live to see the July 11 protests.
On July 22, 2012, Payá, then 60 years old and the most prominent member of the Cuban opposition, died in a car wreck that his family and others suspect was provoked by Cuban state security agents.
What led Payá to his unwavering pursuit of the cause of freedom in Cuba, daring to challenge Fidel Castro’s monopoly on power, is the core of an English-language biography of the opposition leader released this week with the title “Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and His Daring Quest for a Free Cuba,” by Pulitzer-winning journalist David E. Hoffman and published by Simon and Schuster.
“Give me Liberty” portrays the journey of Payá from a rebellious teenager who was sent to a work camp for his Catholic beliefs to a member of the Church who tried to push it to become more vocal in advocating for the rights of Cubans, eventually achieving that he needed to step into politics, even if that meant going against the repressive machinery of the Cuban state — and paying a high price for it.
The book “has been a dream for a long time,” said his daughter Rosa María Payá, herself a prominent advocate for political liberties in Cuba after being forced into exile after her father’s death.
“The book comes out on the 10th anniversary of his assassination, but also after a paradigmatic change in the history of Cuba and how Cubans as a people, as citizens, confront that oppressive power,” she said in an interview, referring to the July protests. “The path my father opened, we are seeing it become a reality.”
Hoffman, a Washington Post editorial-board member and a Cold War expert, offers a meticulous account of Paya’s life and beliefs, one that can also be read as a historical account of the Cuban opposition movement and how it came to be despite the lack of political space on the island.
Hoffman told the Miami Herald that while writing the book he was guided by the question, “How does one guy who’s a medical technology technician in a hospital, how does he decide to go up against the world like this? Where does somebody find the inspiration and the courage?”
In his search, he found that a simple conviction guided Payá’s fight for freedom: “That every person is born with rights, that God gives you the rights, not Fidel,” Hoffman said. “He was a man who was motivated by life’s lessons in Cuba and not by fancy textbooks.”
Payá went on to mount what was probably the biggest challenge to Castro’s legitimacy in many decades with the Varela Project, an attempt to use Cuba’s constitution to promote civil and political liberties on the island. He and many members of his Christian Liberation Movement painstakingly gathered, verified and submitted to the country’s National Assembly 11,020 signatures supporting the referendum petition in 2002. While Fidel Castro crushed the initiative by introducing his own constitutional amendment making socialism “irreversible” and imprisoning 75 prominent dissidents, including many members of Paya’s movement, it was a watershed moment that inspired Cubans everywhere.
The constitutional provision allowing for the gathering of signatures to change the laws came from Cuba’s 1940s constitution that inexplicably survived the many reforms and changes later introduced by the socialist government. Hoffman tracks back how this idea came to be in an insightful chapter shedding light on a lesser known character, Gustavo Gutierrez, the lawyer and politician who proposed the provision.
Hoffman also provides an important clue about how Payá and his friends managed to keep the signatures out of reach of state security agents: They were hidden in convents by nuns. His portrayal of the conflict between Payá, a fervent Catholic, and the late Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who censored criticism of the government among the faithful to pursue a rapprochement with Castro, makes for some of the most interesting reading passages.
But the book is not just the story of the Varela project or even the man behind it. It is also the story of his family and his country and how Castro dismantled individual freedoms under the unmet promise of a more egalitarian society. Castro got his own chapter and is described as an “opportunistic politician” more concerned with power than ideology.
“The book is exhaustive in describing the pressure, the harassment, the anxiety, the anguish that we experience as a family,” Rosa María Payá said, recalling, however, that she had a happy childhood because her parents bore the brunt of the government repression.
But this took a personal toll on Payá, who had “a very soft personality,” Hoffman said. “He was so intensely pressured and surveilled that after a while, he became hardened.”
With a dissecting eye, Hoffman explains how Cuban state security works: the constant harassment and surveillance, the discrediting, the sowing of divisions, the infiltration of dissident groups and the early attempts to spot dissent before it takes root, all lessons learned, literally, from the Stasi, the feared secret police in the former East Germany.
In one eye-opening passage, Hoffman provides excerpts from a secret Stasi handbook on how to crush “political diversion,” strategies that the book says Jacinto Valdés-Dapena, a Cuban lieutenant from the Ministry of the Interior’s counterintelligence branch, learned firsthand in the Stasi -run Potsdam University of Law.
The book also includes revealing information on the deaths of Payá and Harold Cepero, a member of his movement who was in the car the day of the crash near the eastern city of Bayamo, along with the young politicians Ángel Carromero from Spain and Aron Modig from Sweden. Hoffman got copies of text messages that Modig sent to a friend that day. Modig had previously talked about the messages in 2013.
“Angel is saying that someone tried to force us off the road,” one of the text messages said.
Modig still says he doesn’t remember much of what happened as he lost consciousness after the crash. And there are some “unknowns,” Hoffman said, but he believes the car crash was no accident, despite the official government version.
Carromero was blamed for the accident and sentenced to four years in prison, but was later released to return to Spain. He told the Miami Herald in 204 that government officials forced him to confess and that the car crashed1 from an “assault” likely staged by state security agents.
“We know that the car that Carromero was driving was rammed from behind, and this caused Carromero to lose control,” Hoffman said. “I believe that’s an incontrovertible known fact. It was a deliberate decision.”
An independent investigation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the suspicious deaths of Payá and Cepero has been pending since 2013.
David E. Hoffman and Rosa María Payá will present “Give Me Liberty” at 7:30 pm Wednesday at Books & Books at 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL 33134.
This story was originally published June 22, 2022 7:00 AM.