Cuban veteran rights activist Oswaldo Paya in a 2003 photo.
– Jorge Rey/Getty Images
Two years ago, I traveled to Cuba for the Register to learn firsthand about the living faith on the island. Little had been written about the Church in Cuba since Pope John Paul II’s dramatic, historical visit in 1998.
Making no contacts before arriving in Havana, I relied on God to lead me to his most faithful servants.
That’s how I came to spend memorable days with the extraordinary — pious and brave — lay Catholic leader Oswaldo Paya Sardinas, whose honesty and calm intelligence proved that moral leadership still existed on the island.
I was led to Paya by an admiring seminarian, Harold Cepero Escalante, who had turned to the Church as “the only institution that can challenge communist lies” after he was expelled from veterinary school — for supporting a democracy movement Paya started.
Tragically, both men, Paya and Cepero, were killed on July 22 in a suspicious midday car crash in eastern Cuba that Paya’s family and others do not believe was accidental.
They were riding in the back seat of a car driven by a Spanish politician visiting Cuba to support the Christian Liberation Movement (CLM), which Paya founded in 1988. Cepero had left seminary to dedicate himself to political change.
Although the driver claims he lost control of the car, Paya’s wife, Ofelia Acevedo, told reporters she received information that the car was rammed by another vehicle — a practice used to harass Paya and other regime opponents as documented by an Italian film crew last year.
Since the driver is still under the control of Cuban authorities, and facing trial, his statements are not reliable, human rights advocates agree.
Paya advanced a vision of change rooted in Catholic values.
The CLM was centered in his parish church, in the Havana neighborhood of El Cerro, where Paya lived his whole life.
As he and his wife, Ofelia, explained to me in 2010, their political activism flowed from participation in an internal Catholic dialogue, the National Cuban Ecclesiastical Encounter in the mid-1980s, about the need for the Church — and the faithful — to live the Gospel, even in very difficult conditions, namely, an oppressive one-party state.
During one of our hours-long conversations in his living room, as he sat on a rocking chair under a massive portrait of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, he remembered, “The Church was just surviving then. Being known as a person of faith was dangerous and most people were afraid to go to Church. After a lot of reflection and discussion through the encounter, we decided that no matter how few we were, or how hard it was, we had to reach out, meet others, preach the Gospel through our work and lives — not try to get into government or reform from the inside.”
Oswaldo and Ofelia said lay Catholic Cubans began to see God-given natural rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, as rights they were morally obligated to assert, in defiance of the regime…..
Not only did the government ostracize Paya but, by his account, Church leadership marginalized him too.
He told the Italian newspaper La Stampa he was disappointed with the Cuban Catholic hierarchy: “In a country like this, the bishops were never meant to appeal to the forces of oppression and abuse who arrest opponents, to resolve a crisis like this.”
To me, Paya compared the Cuban situation to Poland: “John Paul II prohibited the Polish Church from negotiating with the communist regime. This is why Solidarity won and the Catholic Church remained unscathed.
“Here, the Church sees its role as engaged in dialogue with the Castros. From my perspective, dialogue requires respect for all parties and as long as they jail us for advocating freedom — Christ himself would refuse to speak,” Paya told me.
The last time I talked to Paya by phone, on his 60th birthday, last February, he was praying that the much anticipated visit of Pope Benedict to Cuba would also mark the occasion of the beginning of “reconciliation” of all Cubans. Unfortunately, most regime opponents were forcibly prevented from attending the papal Mass and ceremonies. Paya’s house was surrounded by security police.
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