On July 22, 2012, in the El Cerro neighborhood of Havana, Cuba, Rosa María Payá said goodbye to her father as she would any other day, with a kiss on the cheek. But that day would not be like any other day.
After lunch, she received a series of confusing messages: An accident. Militia everywhere. Three people were taken to hospital. “Help!”
She called her father’s phone. One and another time. No reply.
Finally, around 4 pm, someone answered. Immediately, Rosa María shouted: “Papa, papa, papa”. A female voice answered hesitantly, claiming to be a doctor. Finally, she said, “There was a fatality.”
It was at that moment that Rosa María Payá learned that her father had been murdered by the Castro regime.
His father was Oswaldo Payá, head of the Varela Project, created by him in the late 1990s to propose freedom of expression, association, religion and the press, along with free elections, free enterprise and the release of political prisoners in Cuba.
Oswaldo, a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr., had found a breach in a totally closed state system. Cuban law allowed citizens to propose legal initiatives as long as they had more than 10,000 signatures. Collecting 10,000 signatures, however, under a repressive regime that imprisons any opposing voice, or worse, ends its life, was not an easy task.
Payá himself had been sent to a labor camp at 17, alongside hippies, gays, Christians, writers and anyone who had a different view of the state – people the state considered “scum”. He had seen and felt suffering and repression firsthand, in the flesh.
Despite all the odds, Payá collected 25,000 signatures from the Cuban people. People who overcame fear and put their names and addresses down on paper in hopes of freedom. For his work, Payá won the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament in 2002 and was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Instead of accepting the first 10,000 signatures, as the law allowed, however, the Cuban regime changed the constitution to announce that socialism was now “irrevocable”, legalizing the dictatorship. That’s how totalitarianism works. There is no law. There is only tyranny: in this case, a dictatorship that for six decades has kept its foot on the neck of its people, who in turn beg for the right to think for themselves – to breathe.
Oswaldo refused to give up and, therefore, the Cuban regime insisted on digging its foot deeper until it choked off its last breath.
The Cuban government, of course, says Payá died in a “car accident”. Witnesses say otherwise. The autopsies were never released.
Angel Carromero, who was in the car when Payá was killed – currently general secretary of the Madrid regional branch of the Spanish People’s Party youth organization – says the car was hit several times, pushing them horribly off the road. The same thing had happened to Payá just two months before, although this time he had escaped with his life.
“To find the culprits in the deaths of Oswaldo and Harold, you must look inside the top of the Cuban dictatorship,” writes Carromero.
Carromero was referring to Harold Cepero, a young Cuban and dear friend of Rosa María Payá, who always said that his calling was “to fight for my people” – a fight for which he lost his life at the age of 32.
Continuity in the fight for rights
“After the first two or three days of the worst kind of shock and panic,” Rosa María told me, “I knew I had to continue my father’s work. We couldn’t abandon everything he did. In fact, what happened confirmed the effectiveness of what he was doing.”
She then continued her father’s struggle for basic human rights in Cuba, the right to think, choose, prosper, breathe. In 2015, Rosa María started a movement called Cuba Decide, aimed at transforming the country into a Cuba where there are no arbitrary prisons, where people can travel without state permission, where there is no religious persecution, where no one is exiled, imprisoned or killed for your beliefs. A Cuba where Cubans decide their future.
On March 16, 2016, she and other Cuba Decide leaders presented the Cuban parliament with more than 10,000 new signatures in support of the Varela Project, calling for multiparty elections. The demand was, predictably, denied. Since then, she has been trying to garner support from the international community.
In 2019, Rosa María received the Morris Abram Award at the annual gala dinner of the NGO UN Watch in Geneva. Also in 2019, members of Cuba Decide within the island bravely demonstrated in Cuba, from Las Tunas to Matanzas, from Camaguey to Santiago de Cuba, alongside the Patriotic Union of Cuba (Unpacu), another dissident movement on the island. Many were arrested.
In February 2020, Cuba Decide had received support from groups in the European Parliament. In March, Paraguay also officially recognized the initiative. In May 2020, Cuba Decide carried out the largest humanitarian donations campaign for the island’s citizens in decades, which the Cuban government blocked.
Given this scenario, it is perhaps inevitable that Rosa María has risen to a position of leadership.
She was born in 1989. Her mother cradled her in her arms as the Berlin Wall crumbled and the promise of freedom vibrated among Cubans on and off the island. Instead of collapsing, however, the Cuban regime made a series of dishonest deals that kept it in power. International corporations have helped to provide another lifeline for a regime that has received the rest of its oxygen of “democide” and repression.
The first time I met Rosa María, she told me that a “free person” was created. Despite the regime they lived in, her father always told her to speak her mind and they would deal with the consequences – consequences that, for many of us living in the US, are unimaginable; consequences her father paid with his life.
“Most of my friends at school thought like us, but I had to show a different face to society, a posture that was the result of pure fear. Generations and generations used to the idea that one thing is what is really thought and another thing is projected at school and at work”, says Rosa María.
Today she is the same age as her friend Harold Cepero was when he was killed. She is fighting from outside the island, because in Cuba a sentence is being imposed against her, for insisting on living as a free person. She has not been able to return to Cuba since 2018. This is not unusual in Cuban history. José Martí, Cuba’s most famous patriot poet, helped free Cuba from Spanish yoke while living in New York and Tampa, Florida.
On July 20, two days before the ninth anniversary of her father’s death, I had the great honor of accompanying Rosa María to testify in Washington at a hearing on the protests in Cuba and the crackdown on freedom of expression. There she shared the suffering of her people and stated that what they were clearly asking for was what they were singing in the streets despite the threat of death: Freedom!
In practical terms, she called on the US to apply individual sanctions to high officials and individuals who abuse human rights in Cuba, making use of the Magnitsky Global Law.
She called on the United States to approach Cuba as it did apartheid: demanding that companies adopt the Sullivan Principles, which require them to uphold human rights where they do business, rather than providing vital ropes for tyranny.
Rosa María also called on the US to help provide Internet access to Cubans, to circumvent the regime’s censorship, which controls all lines of communication inside and outside the island.
She requested that the United States invite the European Union and the Organization of American States (OAS) to adopt similar measures and to use all the tools at their disposal, including the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (TIAR), to address the regime’s threats. Cuban. He also asked that the regime continue to be excluded from the Summit of the Americas until it complies with the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
The message was clear: the United States must do everything within international law to protect Cubans and give them hope as they struggle to break free, despite the regime sending black berets into the streets to terrorize them.
The day after the ninth anniversary of Oswaldo Payá’s death, a full-page paid advertisement appeared in the New York Times, turning a blind eye to the outcry of the Cuban people. It was a letter to President Biden, written out of malice or ignorance, Susan Sarandon, Jane Fonda, Danny Glover and Mark Ruffalo, along with other Hollywood stars and academics, blamed the United States and the embargo for everything that is happening in Cuba .
This has been the Cuban regime’s rhetorical line for years. He takes advantage of Americans’ capacity for self-criticism, although doing so without real knowledge is not only irresponsible, it’s deadly.
During the 2017 Emmy, Jane Fonda, who, with a net worth of $200 million, has benefited greatly from the capitalist democracy under which she lives, was vigorously entitled to express her opinion. She and Lily Tomlin (who did not sign the letter) used the comedy and its platform to protest against Trump, refusing to be “controlled by a sexist, selfish, liar and hypocritical fanatic” just as their characters had done in the beloved classic of the 80’s “9 to 5”. I am all in favor of using the voice, but for that humorous protest, a person in Cuba would have been arrested or killed. This is not the embargo’s fault; the embargo exists because of that fact.
I’ve faltered on the embargo myself over the years, so I understand the impulse. But it’s important not to waver now, at this crucial moment. We must help people directly. And what I do know for sure is that making the embargo the only issue is ignoring the main issue: the claws of the Cuban dictatorship. It’s ignoring the Cuban people on the island and also those who managed to escape the regime’s clutches, like my grandparents, one of whom was a political prisoner for 15 years. It’s choosing the only version of the totalitarian state that oppresses my people.
The people who signed this letter in the New York Times are also people from communities of which I consider myself a part, as a writer and screenwriter – the people I can talk to and trust will not “marginalize” me because of my experience and opinion. based on research. It turns out that I’m also an American registered voter as an independent who has always voted for the Democratic Party in the presidential election and is now writing this article for a conservative newspaper. This is the kind of glorious nuance that we constantly take for granted in the United States, the nuance that lies at the heart of democracy, and that I honor daily as an American citizen.
All of this is important because our voice counts, our opinions and views count. Who we choose to hear about issues is everything when we look at politics. And, therefore, it is my responsibility to give readers an alternative voice to the Cuban regime and its unique history.
That’s why I presented the story of Rosa María Payá: someone who not only superficially dealt with the pain of a foreign people, but who was in the trenches, in the flesh, inside the bowels of a beast that most Americans will be lucky never to try, not even remotely. Someone who knows the difference between the voice of the Cuban people and the tentacles of a dictatorship and its propaganda machine struggling to survive.
*Vanessa Garcia is a screenwriter, novelist, playwright and journalist. Her debut novel, White Light, was published in 2015.