MIAMI (CBS4) – I will probably never meet anyone braver in my life than Oswaldo Paya. It was June 2005 and I was in Havana for The Miami Herald. I had been meeting with both government officials and dissidents, writing a series of columns about the island.
Much of what I wrote during that time dealt with terrorism and violence. Was violence an acceptable response to oppression? Hotels in Havana had been rocked by a series of bombings designed to create fear and scare off tourists. One of the bombs killed an Italian tourist. Were such attacks a necessary reality? Do the ends of a free Cuba justify the means of killing innocent civilians?
In Cuba these are not abstract questions. And those within the island’s dissident movement struggle with them daily. There have always been a contingent of dissidents who advocate open defiance. They promise retribution for the crimes committed by the regime. They have a vision of a post-Castro Cuba more akin to Romania after the bloody overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu. They want tribunals and executions. And given the suffering caused by those in power in Cuba the desire for vengeance in the name of justice is certainly understandable.
But Paya was different.
Paya had gained fame several years before we met. He was the architect of what became known as the Varela Project, a first of its kind petition drive calling for democratic change within the Cuban constitution. The petition garnered more than 25,000 signatures.
Paya’s movement called for negotiation with the regime and national reconciliation.
“Our mission is to move forward,” Paya told me one afternoon as we sat in his living room. “Our target is not to kill people, not to create chaos, just to ask for the rights which we are all guaranteed. If we continue to ask for these rights, to keep pressure on the government, then the regime will not have the moral force to keep it in power.”
When we were done with the interview, Paya stood up from his chair and with a wry grin, said to me, “Let’s have our picture taken together.”
I was embarrassed to tell him that I didn’t bring a camera. He told me not to worry and he led me to the front door of his small home. As we stepped outside on the sidewalk, he took my hand and shook it for at least 20 seconds. He smiled the whole time.
“That will be a good picture,” he said with a laugh. Cautioning me not to immediately look across the street, he told me the second floor of the neighboring building was manned around the clock by state security and that there were cameras trained on his house 24 hours a day. Sure enough, as I walked away, I glanced up and could see the agents standing in the window.
Paya died Sunday when his car went off the road about 500 miles east of Havana. Paya’s daughter claimed that his death was not an accident but that state security deliberately ran his vehicle off the road.
Perhaps they just got tired of watching him.
And maybe one day soon, when there is a change in Cuba, and the government files on Paya are opened, I can get that picture of the two of us. I’d like that very much.