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, historic 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 the 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 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 in 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.
Paya started the “Varela Project,” a nationwide signature campaign demanding a referendum on fundamental freedoms. It was premised on an article in the Cuban constitution that said the National Assembly had to consider any initiative supported by at least 10,000 citizens. Hundreds of people and small organizations joined with the CLM to collect signatures.
The Varela Project was named after a 19th-century priest, Father Felix Varela, who confronted the Spanish colonial power, demanding freedom for Cubans.
Not since Fidel Castro took power in 1959 had Cubans had a chance like this: to democratically petition their government. Paya, together with other democratic activists, presented a first round of more than 11,000 signatures to the Cuban National Assembly in 2002.
He described to me the Varela Project’s importance in moving — and explicitly Christian — terms:
“It challenged Cubans to have faith and be inspired. There is something you can do. You can act with the freedom God gave you and no one can take away from you. Demand your rights and the rights of all Cubans. This is liberation,” Paya explained.
But, in March 2003, known as the “Black Spring,” some 75 Varela Project leaders were arrested and jailed.
Having received several international prizes in 2002, including the European Parliament’s most prestigious human-rights award, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and the W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award in the U.S., Paya was probably considered too high profile by the Cuban government to throw him in jail with his colleagues, he speculated.
In 2004, he and his wife presented another tranche of signatures, about 14,000. The government responded by declaring “permanent” the country’s socialist identity.
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.
In death, Paya’s achievements were extolled by world leaders, from President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and former Polish President Lech Walesa.
The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution honoring “the life, liberty and leadership” of Oswaldo Paya. It also called on Cuba to allow an impartial investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death.
Pope Benedict XVI sent a telegram of condolence, transmitted through Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, which captures the pain of these deaths: “The Holy Father … raises fervent prayers to God for the eternal repose of the deceased and asks him to grant consolation and strength to those who, at this sad time, are weeping for their irreparable loss.”
As his coffin, draped with the Cuban flag, was carried into the overflowing El Salvador de Mundo Church for a funeral Mass offered by Cardinal Ortega, hundreds of people stood and defiantly chanted, “Libertad” — liberty.
Cardinal Ortega acknowledged at the Mass, “Oswaldo had a clear political vocation, and this, like a good Christian, did not take him from his faith and religious duties. Quite the contrary, he always looked to his faith for inspiration in his political activity.”
Among the most visible mourners were the Ladies in White, an organization of mothers, wives and other relatives of democracy activists jailed by the regime.
Afterwards, about 200 state security police surrounded the church, arrested more than 50 people and herded them onto buses, according to Amnesty International. An Amnesty photo includes a priest in his collar wearing a T-shirt with Paya’s picture.
It was exactly the kind of state-sanctioned intimidation and brutality that Oswaldo Paya dedicated himself to ending.
As heartbreaking as the news is to everyone who prays for Cuba’s democratic future, some solace came from knowing that Paya had prepared his family to carry on the work of CLM, especially through his daughter, Rosa Maria, 25, who led an international press conference about life in Cuba and her father’s legacy. She was one of Harold Cepero’s best friends.
A CLM activist told me by phone, “In the last year, the movement led by Oswaldo Paya was bringing together people of all faiths, all races, all professions and ages. It even reached significant numbers of government workers and a growing number of clergy. This was all a home-grown and home-led movement. We didn’t receive, and did not count on, Church or outside support.”
Said the young mourner, who asked not to be named, “With God’s help, we will continue.”

Victor Gaetan
writes from Washington.