Oswaldo Payá Sardinas is the most prominent political dissident in Cuba. Founder of the Varela Project, the Cuban democracy movement inspired by 19th-century priest Father Felix Varela, and the Christian Liberation Movement, he has continued non-violent opposition to the regime, although most of the movement’s leadership was jailed.
Seventy-five participants in the Varela Project were arrested in March 2003. Fifty-two of them were released last week in a deal partially brokered by the Catholic Church in Cuba.
In this third and final part of an interview with Register correspondent Victor Gaetan (parts one and two appeared here over the past two days), Payá discusses the U.S. embargo of Cuba and his ideas about what American Catholics can do to help Catholics in Cuba.
How do you describe the current regime?
The government has tremendous control over the majority, but not the support of the majority.
What are the Christian Liberation Movement’s priorities today?
After 2003, we started in a new direction — a more private direction compared to the Varela Project, but an activity grounded in dialogue.
We convoked a dialogue in which between 12,000 and 15,000 people have participated, meeting in their homes around the country. Sometimes, they met in churches. They wrote their opinions, and we concluded with a program and a proposed electoral law. These proposals were compiled as a “Program for All Cubans,” describing a transition to democracy. Small groups continue to meet as part of an “All Cubans Forum” dedicated to nonviolent change and obtaining basic human rights.
We have two concrete priorities: First, two years ago, we proposed to the National Assembly a law against discrimination against Cubans. This law establishes the right of Cuban citizens to leave the country, to travel. Right now, we have no right to travel, which is discriminatory. Second, we have reactivated the Varela Project, which we discussed.
What are the Christian Liberation Movement’s greatest achievements?
We have to say thanks to God because we are still fighting, still hoping, because we have set out for ourselves a concrete, peaceful path to take us to democracy and freedom. I think this is an achievement. We have destroyed the myth of the regime — the myth that supposes that the Cuban people can’t overcome fear — a myth which says: After socialism, there is no alternative. Socialism or death. We say: Freedom and life. That defines our program.
This is a regime that tried to confiscate the person himself. The first phase of the regime was marked by an attempt to de-Christianize the whole culture and person. We have countered this grotesque effort.
We have presented a very clear counter message to the regime. We say to the Cubans: You have a dignity and freedom that no one can take from you, and this liberation does not ask for hate or destruction of those who oppress us. We want dialogue with our oppressor to whom we say, “We don’t hate you, but we love you, and we will not submit because of fear.” Change means reconciliation, because this will be reconciliation among us.
And we say: We too, we Cubans, have the right to rights. We are human beings, sons of God, and that is the source of rights, that is the first freedom, the freedom of God’s house, so that even the person who doesn’t believe in God also has his rights.
What can the U.S. and the Church in the U.S. do for the Christian Liberation Movement?
First of all, more than force and resources, we are not thinking about governments, but about peoples and societies. If we talk about a Church, we have to talk about God’s people. He who believes has to pray. We trust in the power of prayer. I think it supports us. They can proclaim and sustain that there is a peaceful alternative in Cuba. That does not mean the jump to savage capitalism. This is savage socialism, in which the poor are so poor they do not even have the voice to say they are poor. [Hugo] Chavez has taken the same path. They come in the name of the poor, but they take the voice of the poor. The voice should be given to the Cuban people.
What is your position on the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba?
First, 48 years is long enough to understand that it is not a change factor in Cuba. The power group in Cuba lives as rich people. They lack nothing. They are wealthy despite the embargo. The pain is for the poor people.
The embargo has become an important political instrument for the government. The embargo is used by the regime as an excuse for the miserable economic conditions. Of course, the embargo should be lifted as the Vatican and the U.S. bishops’ conference agree. But it is not lifting the embargo that will liberate Cuba; it is the duty and mission of the people to liberate Cuba.
Can you elaborate on the idea that your mission and ideal is the same as the challenge facing Catholics in the free world?
In the world, there exist exclusive forces that want to eliminate God from the world, but our lives are held in the mind of God, in his infinite wisdom. This is a truth that much of the modern world does not want to accept — in Cuba, in Europe, in the United States.
I also want to mention that we brought together hundreds of members of the political opposition. The synthesis of our vision of change, “United in Hope,” is just two pages: a declaration. So our movement has a complete program, the Program for All Cubans, and a common vision of change, United in Hope, which we are distributing hand to hand around Cuba.
In an important way, in the way that our activities are a function of Christian humanism, what we are saying, and what we are doing, is something the rest of the world needs. The U.S. needs the same changes. Eastern and Western Europe need change. It is exactly the same.
How do you picture the end of communism in Cuba?
I say, with humility, the liberation is our responsibility. Cubans have to play our own role — to liberate ourselves from the lies and hatred. Change means rights, freedom and reconciliation, which we can achieve with all Cubans, on the island and abroad, in a spirit given life by God.
Jesus says: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” This is the division between the state and religion. We saw that Jesus was saying, Your freedom is not so Caesar can take away your freedom. Our movement began to say Give to God what is his. Caesar cannot take our lives, our freedom given to us by God.
Thus, we founded our movement for liberation from fear, from hate, from the culture of fear — everything the regime does to put the people on the defensive, and we say very clearly what inspires us.
We have this challenge before the next generation comes. If we do not do this by ourselves, we will not truly be free.
Victor Gaetan writes from Washington, D.C.