The communist Castro dictatorship may have assassinated Cuban opposition leader Oswaldo Paya, but as a torchbearer of liberty, they cannot assassinate his legacy.
Liberty’s torchbearers, like Oswaldo Payá, can be found the world over
They are, in the words of Pulitzer-Prize winning author David Hoffman, “dreamers who dared to wish for more.”
They are people like Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine. Or Alexei Navalny, imprisoned opposition leader and freedom fighter in Russia. Or Mahsa Amini, the young woman whose death in Iran is fueling mass protests against the hijab laws. Or Tank Man, the unidentified Chinese man who faced down a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square.
They are sometimes relatively unknown to us here in America, like Oswaldo Payá, a dissident who dared to defy Fidel Castro in Cuba, inspiring thousands of Cubans to fight for democracy.
They are liberty’s torchbearers, intrepid souls who are lighting flames of freedom all over the world, and sometimes across multiple generations, refusing to let the dream of democracy die.
“I think there are people like Payá in these places, people with incredible endurance and principle,” Hoffman told me. “They are not often in the headlines, but they are there.”
Hoffman, a longtime editor and reporter for The Washington Post, was in town at the Tattered Cover over the weekend to talk about his new book, “Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and his Daring Quest for a Free Cuba.”
Payá formed a pro-democracy movement in Cuba in the 1990s. “A devoted Catholic, he championed a simple, bedrock belief that rights are bestowed by God, and not the state,” Hoffman writes. “Every day, he witnessed these rights trampled in Cuba. He could not stay silent.”
In 1998, in the twilight of Castro’s rule, Payá launched the Varela Project, challenging Castro’s dictatorship with an unprecedented nationwide citizen petition demanding democratic reforms such as free speech and free association. The petition was perfectly legal, allowed by a little-known clause in the constitution that Payá exploited.
Payá and his fellow liberty lovers secretly collected 11,020 signatures door to door, then surprised Castro by submitting them with great fanfare to the National Assembly in 2002. They added 14,384 signatures the following year, and nuns kept 10,000 more signatures secretly hidden. All told, more than 35,000 Cubans had signed the petition.
But Payá and his movement paid a heavy price. Castro responded by ignoring the petition, arresting dozens of Payá’s followers and sending them to prison for many years.
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