Creating Conditions for Change

How Catholicism Led to Cuban Liberation Movement

Dissident and head of the Varela Project Oswaldo Payá addresses the foreign media at his home in Havana Nov. 22, 2007.
Dissident and head of the Varela Project Oswaldo Payá addresses the foreign media at his home in Havana Nov. 22, 2007. (photo: REUTERS/Claudia Daut (CUBA))

Oswaldo Payá Sardinas is the founder of the Varela Project, the most powerful democracy effort in Cuba’s recent history.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana, Cuba announced July 7 that the Castro regime has agreed to release 52 prisoners of conscience, the remaining prisoners of 75 arrested in March 2003 for participating in the Varela Project. The movement was inspired by 19th-century priest Father Felix Varela.

Payá, 58, founded the Christian Liberation Movement (Movimiento Cristiano Liberacion) in 1987. Since 2003, Payá has continued non-violent opposition to the regime, although most of the movement’s leadership was jailed. His family’s house, under 24-hour police surveillance, has served as the major point of communication between prisoners and their families.

Yesterday, the Register presented the first of a three-part interview Register correspondent Victor Gaetan conducted with Payá in Havana and in a follow-up interview conducted by phone this week. Here is the second part.

Tell me about your family.

I’m the fifth son of seven children, all boys. We grew up in Havana. In fact, my parish church, where my family and I go to Mass, is the same church where my father was baptized. Three of my brothers are still here in Cuba, while two live in Spain now. They are all active, in different ways, in the movement, as are my wife and three children.

How did you come to take this stand — to create a movement grounded in Christian values and to initiate a daring campaign named after a daring priest?

I must go back to my parents. My parents were not very close to the old regime, the Batista government. My father and grandfathers were commercial people. My mother’s family were Catholic people, practicing Catholics. They had a strong sense of this country. For all of them, to be in the Church was a natural environment, and a moral basis was very present in the family.

I was born in 1952, so 6 years old when the revolution came. There was very wide popular support for the revolution. It was marked by a very strong intolerance. Great popular support but also fear from the beginning. General fear. The revolution was a great illusion with support from the people. There was never freedom at all. From the first day, even with the greatest support of the Cuban people, there was no option for the people.

Anyway, the revolutionaries began to distribute metal plates to hang in front of each house. They put messages such as “This is your house, Fidel” or “Thank you, Fidel!” One day, they reached my house and knocked on the door. A man asked to put a Fidel sign on our door. And my mother said, “I don’t want it. I’m not against the government, but we don’t want it.” She put up a different sign: “Everything with God. Without God, nothing.” It was significant, because the regime only accepted unconditional support, and her simple defiance marked me.

What was your early education like? Did you attend Catholic school?

I was in a Catholic school, a Marist school, for the first three grades, about 1958-61. I remember that. My brothers were in the same school. The teachers were mostly Mexican and Spanish. The main influence the brothers had on me was the sense of Catholic militancy, a drive they conveyed. I was already educated in Catholic values at home. These were people who had suffered persecution in Mexico and Spain, which we heard about. And then, a more harsh persecution against Catholics began at that point, in 1961.

In public schools, there were still some Catholic teachers, but the new, militant communist teachers were pushing the Catholic ones out. At that point, the people started to abandon the Church en masse. Churches and Catholic schools were confiscated. To stay in the Church was like being against the revolution. I will not say it was a heroic act, because, for my brothers and I, it was just natural to go to school with scapulars of Mary of Carmel. There was no discussion between my brothers and I regarding being Catholic. Our family and other devoted Catholic neighbors were called “worms.” In sum, my family did not get close to the revolution, and it was our faith that, largely, prevented that.

Thinking back, I realize it was a point of pride for us to be called “worms.” I woke up early in the morning, went to my parish, went to Mass at 7am, dressed in my school uniform and books. When Father purified the holy things at Mass, I said good-bye and went to school. Every day. Then, we went to church to spend the afternoon, until Father got tired and sent us home. It was 1966, ’67, ’68.

I am not a very learned man, but I will tell you we used to read a lot at that time, and follow the news. I remember very vividly the Prague Spring, and reports about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. We were told the Czech government asked for “our” help — Soviet and Cuban help. It was a strong relationship between Russia and Cuba.

My father had a trans-Atlantic radio, short wave, which had been sold for military purposes. My mother used to listen to the “Voice of America” every day. I still remember the names of the broadcasters. There was a lot of information. I heard the launching of the Apollo, very good, quality reporting. It made me feel like I was orbiting with the Apollo. I’ll never forget the first passage around the moon. They lost communication when they were on the other side of the moon, and we were sitting on the floor, praying. Then, we heard the sound that it came back. That radio station used to fill us with so many emotions — it was better than today. I want to say that they were always very impartial. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the message of a nation: with historical material, sports, culture and a very good capacity to transmit information with excellent description.

At my school, I was identified as being against the government. At some point, I talked to some students to explain what the invasion of Czechoslovakia meant. After that, very serious things happened in my school because students responded less to the government orientation. Subsequently, I was accused of leadership. The school management, as was typical, made an analysis/criticism of me in front of my class. But an extraordinary thing happened: My fellow students did not attack me. It was 1968. And a young woman, who was a “daughter of the revolution,” said, “My family is a revolutionary family, but I believe what he is saying.” It created a lot of tension, but it gave me tremendous encouragement that truth can win people over, despite the propaganda.

Did you do military service? Isn’t military service mandatory?

I had some intense experiences while supposedly under the obligation of military service. About 2,500 of us from Havana were taken to a town at the center of the island, in the south, which has a big area of marshland, like the Everglades. The officers began to treat us as prisoners. We were very far away from any community. And we began to be totally insubordinate. We did not listen to the officers, in a nonviolent way, but we rebelled. We did not get out of the trucks when they wanted to dump us in this no man’s land. We were in the trucks, and we were surrounded by the military. This standoff lasted eight hours. When the commandant came to talk to us, we said, “You have brought us to a concentration camp, not to a military place.” We were there for 30 days.

Then, this group was sent to work in a marble quarry on an island south of Cuba. It was forced labor. The island was militarized, and only at certain times did they allow movement. It was like in the film Papillon. But even there, I found people of faith.

Some young people and some seminarians created a “school.” There were priests who came twice a month; they had been in jail in China. We began to read together there. I am not a learned person, but we read Teilhard de Chardin, Jacques Maritain, G.K. Chesterton’s life of St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Thomas Aquinas. This went on for three years while I was on the island, 1968-1971. When the seminarians left, I stayed, working in the marble quarry. At night, I stayed in the church. When the seminarians came back again, the archbishop of Havana came to see us, and he took me in front of the community. There were very few people. I was helping him at Mass, and I was told, “Get down on your knees.” Then he made a kind of ordination, saying, “You are authorized to give communion, to baptize.” … I had a special relationship to the Church in that tiny, isolated community, and it was so liberating.

Tell me more about this formative Christian experience.

Every Saturday, I invited my work partners from the labor camp to go somewhere so we would wake up in a positive place, which was not the camp. We had books in the church. We talked about philosophy, religion, life. There were Masons, agnostics, Catholics, but we respected each other a lot. At night, I put together the pews of the church so we could sleep there. The church became our house. We were a group of about 15. We used to say, “Let’s form the opposition party.” Some of the group became Catholic. We did not put any conditions on participation, though. But I hope they all remember that in the Catholic Church, everyone is respected whatever his or her beliefs are.

In a profound sense, the Christian Liberation Movement was born then.

I understand you and your wife, Ofelia, were participants in 1986 in ENEC (Encuentro Nacional Eclesial Cubano), a national meeting of Catholic lay and religious leaders, which was considered a turning point in the history of the Catholic Church in Cuba after the revolution.

ENEC had a tremendous impact on the Church’s orientation toward power. I was always against the submission of the Catholic Church to communism. We believed that the Church must be free, and the Church should never serve as an instrument of communism. Most people identified with what we felt. But there were some elements, even in the Church, that felt in order for our faith to lead, not just survive, we would have to enter government circles and influence the power from inside. This strategy was ultimately rejected as a result of the ENEC discussions and dialogue.

The result was a decision on a plan with two main points: 1) The Church had to go out and meet the Cuban people with the Gospel, and 2) No matter how difficult the conditions, the Church had to stay on Christ’s tasks. For the laity, this meant staying in your work, and giving witness wherever you found yourself.

For example, I am an engineer and I fix medical equipment. This is my job, and it is what I’ve done for a long time. From this place, as a humble Cuban citizen, I am a witness, and I am trying to create the conditions for permanent change.

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington, D.C.

Tomorrow: Payá’s surprising views on the U.S. embargo of Cuba.