Oswaldo Payá, a great human rights activist and a champion of freedom and liberty for the Cuban people, died yesterday in a fatal car crash.
Although Payá’s name was not well known in the United States, he spent decades under constant threat in Cuba, trying to transform his native country through nonviolent action. The 60-year-old medical equipment engineer was inspired at a young age by his Roman Catholic faith and the events of the Prague Spring of 1968 to overcome his government’s intimidation tactics and build the Varela Project—his nation’s first widespread domestic opposition movement. As the driving force behind the Varela Project, a grassroots petition drive that worked within constitutional channels and collected more than 25,000 signatures in favor of expanding basic freedoms, Payá exemplified a thoughtful, inclusive, and home-grown approach to challenging the Cuban state.
Payá, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, not only inspired thousands of his fellow citizens but also earned the praise of the international community. In 2002 the European Union honored his “decisive contribution to the fight” with its most esteemed human rights award, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. That same year the National Democratic Institute recognized “his courageous and steadfast commitment to fundamental human rights” with its W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award.
I met Payá and his wife at their Havana home in 2005. The house was under constant surveillance, both electronically and by ever-present security personnel in the street outside. My colleagues and I spoke to the Payás in whispers while music blared through the house in what was probably a futile attempt to stop the conversation from being overheard by the Cuban government.
Although undeterred by the personal intimidation, Payá was pained by the costs to his children who, at the behest of their government, were shunned by friends and denied university access. Nevertheless, Payá was determined to see change come to Cuba though peaceful, nonviolent action. Despite the oppression, he never lost his faith or his hope.
We mourn Payá’s death, but his legacy lives on in Cuba, around the world, and at the Center for American Progress.
John Podesta is Chair and Counselor of the Center for American Progress.