REVIEW: Give Me Liberty: The true story of Oswaldo Payá and his daring quest for a free Cuba

Flagg Taylor • September 11, 2022 04:59

What would I be willing to risk or endure to live a life where free political discussion and action is possible? This is a question that readers of David Hoffman give me freedom might arise after thinking back to the life of Oswaldo Payá and his battle against communist tyranny in Cuba.

Payá was 13 when the Castro regime seized his father’s newspaper distribution business in 1965. Oswaldo’s father, Alejandro, was arrested. This was the start of a campaign against private enterprise that lasted three years – the establishment of a socialist morality that denounced and punished salesmen and businessmen as parasites. Young Oswaldo had been the only boy in his class to refuse to join the José Martí Pioneers, the communist youth organization in Cuba. The observant Catholicism of the family only added to the stigma suffered by the Payás. Alejandro was released after a week and told his family not to press charges. He recommended a public compliance strategy. He urged his children to do well in school, work hard and prepare for the future. “You have to give in – to triumph,” he said. This was not a strategy Oswaldo would adopt.

Hoffman weaves two other stories around the central narrative of Payá’s confrontation with the communist regime. First, it summarizes Cuba’s postcolonial history, focusing in particular on the history of Cuba’s 1940 constitution. We meet Gustavo Gutiérrez, an advocate of constitutional democracy who drafted a constitution for Cuba in the midst of 1930s. Important to the history of Payá, a key provision of Gutierrez’s draft found its way into Cuba’s 1940 constitution: new laws could be proposed by members of Congress and senators, but also by citizens – in the latter case, the initiative would require the approval of “at least ten thousand citizens who are eligible to vote”.

Second, Hoffman explores Fidel Castro’s rise to power and his construction of Cuban communism. Castro first presented himself as an agent of Cuban democracy, promising elections the day after a successful revolutionary takeover. He even pledged to make the 1940 constitution the “supreme law of the land.” In May 1961 he declared this constitution dead and promised a new “socialist constitution” which would introduce “a new social system without the exploitation of many by man”. This alleged end to exploitation would of course require extraordinary levels of surveillance and coercion. Already in 1960, Castro had set up Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, what he called a “system of collective vigilance”. These organizations could be found in neighborhoods, workplaces and schools. Hoffman calls them the “cornerstones of the police state” because they created a vast network of controllers and informants. By the mid-1960s, the regime had set up the UMAP (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción) labor camp system to house anyone hostile or even potentially hostile to the socialist revolution.

Oswaldo Payá ended up cutting the sugar cane at one of the camps in the summer of 1969. After a year, he was airlifted to the Isle of Pines, which housed a prison complex built in the 1920s where he worked breaking rocks in a quarry 10 hours a day. Restrictions here were less onerous than in the UMAP system, so Payá and some of his fellow inmates were able to explore the small town of Nueva Gerona on weekends. They came across a bookcase across from a church and read Orwell’s book. farm animalby Pasternak Doctor Zhivago, and the works of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. These men who had been declared enemies or deviants found refuge and “reveled in freedom of thought and speech.” As Hoffman puts it, “The forced labor camps attempted to ‘re-educate’ and ‘retrain’ foreigners, to coerce them into believing in revolution. But for Oswaldo Payá, the experience was the opposite. They had no not conquered his soul. They fed him.”

It is unclear whether Payá would share the sentiments of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (one of his heroes), “Blessed are you, prison, for having been in my life”, but he found the atmosphere in Havana stifling by contrast. He had hoped to study physics in college, but campus life was so conformist and ideologically charged that he couldn’t bear it. “They didn’t kick me out but they suffocated me,” he noted. He eventually earned a degree in electrical engineering via night school in 1983. Soon after, he found his calling through the Catholic Church.

Castro’s revolution had brought the Church to the brink of destruction. Before the revolution, there was approximately 1 priest for every 9,000 inhabitants in Cuba. In 1980, this figure was approximately 1 priest for 45,000. Less than 1% of Catholics practiced. In 1985, the Archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega, invited Payá to be one of 173 delegates to a conference on the future of the Cuban Church. Together with his then-fiancée Ofelia, he prepared a document entitled “Faith and Justice”. He argued that Catholics must be free to speak the truth about injustice and oppression and to resist being pushed to the margins of society. He presented his ideas at a meeting of delegates before the conference and was immediately exposed.

A little over a decade later, Payá launched Project Varela, a citizens’ petition demanding freedom of assembly, amnesty for political prisoners, the right to engage in private enterprise, and the establishment of a new electoral code allowing free elections. The movement culminated when Payá submitted an official citizens’ petition to the National Assembly on May 10, 2002 – with over 11,000 signatures.

Payá’s stature grew internationally when he received the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights and Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament. He met with Václav Havel and Pope John Paul II, and the Varela Project continued to add signatures to his petition. Cuban state security was not ill-prepared for this challenge. In the 1980s, a Cuban by the name of Jacinto Valdés-Dapena had gone to Potsdam to study at the Stasi, the security of the East German state. There he learned a strategy for dealing with dissidents known as Zersetzung or decomposition. He brought covert psychological warfare techniques back to Cuba to infiltrate dissident movements, sow distrust among members, and exploit envy and jealousy. Hoffman recounts the fierce battles between Payá and his allies and the security of the Cuban state in gripping detail.

Oswaldo Payá died in a car accident on July 22, 2012 – an accident that many suspects was orchestrated by Cuban state security. Like many prominent dissidents of the 20th century, Payá embodied an extraordinary combination of courage and humility. Hoffman’s book is a powerful antidote to illusions about the reality of Cuban communism. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a character study in action – a test of virtue in the ground of unfreedom. It is hoped that the seeds of virtue left by Payá will soon bear fruit.

Give Me Freedom: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and His Bold Quest for a Free Cuba
by David E. Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, 544 pages, $32.50

Flagg Taylor, a professor in the political science department at Skidmore College, was most recently editor of The Long Night of the Watcher: Essays by Václav Benda, 1977-1989, and host the Podcast of lasting interest. You can find him on Twitter: @FlaggTaylor4