Jorge González-Gallarza reviews David Hoffman’s book, Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and his Daring Quest for a Free Cuba.
Ten years since he was murdered in a provoked car wreck that continues to be masqueraded as accidental, the life of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas (1952-2012) appears to readers of David Hoffman’s new biography like a 60-year-long race against Fidel Castro. What the two men were racing toward came into sharper focus upon Castro’s natural death in 2016. By removing every obstacle in his path, the socialist strongman lived to perpetuate into the 21st century the tyranny dressed up as egalitarian utopia he had launched in a revolution the year before Payá’s birth. By envisioning, instead, a Cuba where the people freely ruled themselves, the Christian dissident had become Castro’s main obstacle by the early ‘10s. And so it came to pass that, in 2012, in the sweltering mid-July heat on a deserted highway near Bayamo in Cuba’s east, the world’s oldest dictatorship got a new lease on life. Despite Payá’s steely resolve to outlive his regime, Fidel won the race to Cuba’s future on that day.
The Castro regime likes to portray dissidents as greedy, self-seeking, decadent politicians on America’s dole, but such questioning of Payá’s motives somehow never quite stuck. Father Jaime Ortega—whose official dealings with Castro through the Church’s diocese in Havana made him look like an appeaser by contrast to Oswaldo’s more contrarian streak— described Payá as “a man of faith embarked on a political mission.” This does not mean that Payá’s lifelong struggle to bring about democracy in Cuba turned his attention away from religion. Instead, faith was the wellspring from which his politics sprang all along. Asked by Mexican-American anchorman Jorge Ramos in a 2003 interview why he risked imprisonment and murder by returning to Cuba, Payá intoned: “I will return in order to live or die in God’s hands.” Payá was a textbook Christian democrat—in that order. Unlike Europe’s exponents of that doctrine, his conviction was truer, doggedly lived out under the grinding test of totalitarianism.
In Hoffman’s account, the Church worked as a pressure valve of sorts for Payá’s freewheeling mind. Breathing an air of relative liberty within it, Payá was able to conjure up a different future for his compatriots, yet the regime’s ideological corset would come to haunt him at times. Raised into the Catholic bourgeoisie, Payá witnessed the Church’s marginalization throughout Castro’s initial decades in power. He took up a couple of key posts within the laity and began distributing several newsletters modeled after Eastern Europe’s samizdat, aiming to instill such plain yet counterrevolutionary concepts as the inherent worth of every human being. “The faith,” writes Hoffman in Give Me Liberty, “was a steady keel on which he centered his life,” and it infused Payá with the “conviction that freedom is an attribute of every person, endowed by God, not the state.” Yet in the late ‘90s, Ortega began censoring his speeches, and Payá turned to other conduits for change.
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