A year ago, Cubans took to the streets in massive protests shouting, “Down with the dictatorship!” Some of the demonstrators and many of the protest’s leaders held out their thumb and forefinger in the shape of the letter L.
In “Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and his Daring Quest for a Free Cuba,” David E. Hoffman delivers a moving, deeply researched and long-overdue biography of the man who launched the Varela Project, a citizen initiative that challenged Fidel Castro’s rule by petitioning for democracy.
The initiative was prompted by what Payá called a “crack in the wall” of tyranny. In a pre-Castro constitution, written in 1940, Cubans were granted the right to propose laws by presenting a citizen initiative with at least 10,000 signatures. Under Castro, that constitution was torn up and a new one written. In the process of creating the new constitution, however, some portions “were simply cut and pasted from . . . the 1940 constitution,” Hoffman writes, including the citizen initiative. “Perhaps Fidel did not notice it, or perhaps he concluded that no one would ever dare to use it.”
Hoffman details the ways in which Payá used the initiative to demand “free speech, a free press, freedom of association, freedom of belief, private enterprise, free elections, and freedom for political prisoners.”
The movement presented the petition to the National Assembly in 2002 with 11,020 verified signatures. More than 14,000 signatures were added the following year. Taken by surprise, Castro and his state security apparatus acted quickly. As Hoffman reveals, “Oswaldo and his movement paid a heavy price.”
Not only were the signatures not accepted, but 75 activists and independent journalists were arrested and sentenced to as many as 28 years in prison. This round-up became known as the Black Spring of 2003. “The arrests over three days,” Hoffman writes, “struck at the heart of Oswaldo’s movement.” Many of those locked up were active in the Varela Project, in one way or another.
Payá himself was not arrested. Instead, state security “subjected [him] to a different torment: relentless psychological warfare,” Hoffman recounts. Warned repeatedly that he would not outlive Castro, Payá told a visiting U.S. diplomat that “people aren’t taking seriously enough the threat that they’d liquidate me.”
Hoffman skillfully leads us through Payá’s narrative, as if “Give Me Liberty” were a historical thriller. The tragedy at the center, of course, is that it’s a true story, not only of one man’s “journey into the whirlwind of dictatorship” but also of a country and its suffocating struggle for freedom.
As a young man, Payá was forced into a labor camp that was meant to mold and “reeducate” him and other dissidents into “new men,” who would defend the revolution. It didn’t work. As Hoffman observes, “for Oswaldo Payá, the experience was the opposite. They had not conquered his soul. They had nourished it.”
The stronger his soul became, however, the more dangerous were the threats against his life. As far back as 2004, Payá recognized he was a marked man when he told Swedish democracy activist Henrik Ehrenberg: “I see very few chances of getting out alive.”
Eight years later he was dead, four years before Castro.
The last chapter, detailing the car crash that killed Payá on July 22, 2012, reads like a nightmare-inducing horror story. We ride along as Payá travels with his protege and family friend, Harold Cepero, to Santiago de Cuba, 545 miles from Havana on the other end of the island. In Santiago de Cuba, Payá hoped to organize and train young activists under a program he called Paths for Change.
In the car with Payá and Cepero were two foreigners, who were working with Payá. At the wheel was a young Spaniard named Ángel Carromero, a leader in the Madrid youth wing of the country’s ruling People’s Party. Also in the car was Jens Aron Modig, a youth organizer of Sweden’s Christian Democrats.
Along the way, their rented Hyundai was tailed by what Payá believed were state security men in a red Lada. After a stop for lunch, Payá sang to a Beatles CD they had bought on the trip and warned Carromero to drive carefully to avoid provoking the vehicle shadowing them. As they passed through a construction zone, the Lada suddenly lurched forward and hit the Hyundai from behind. Carromero lost control of the car, which slid off the road and hit a tree. The Hyundai’s roof caved in where Payá was sitting. Modig curled into a fetal position, and Carromero passed out, then regained consciousness as he was being pulled out of the car by two “brawny” Cuban men who shut him into a van. Someone then hit him in the head, and he fell unconscious again. Modig woke up in an ambulance.
“Unanswered questions linger,” Hoffman writes. “Where did the blue van and ambulance come from? What explains the ambulance and van showing up so quickly in the middle of nowhere? Were they already in position — because someone knew what was about to happen?”
Payá’s family would soon be told that Oswaldo was dead. But state officials revealed little about what had happened. At the request of Payá’s wife, Ofelia, two friends rushed to the hospital and were told by a police captain that two witnesses reported seeing the crash. Neither witness mentioned anything about a collision, only that the Hyundai went off the road. “They recalled a passing red Lada had halted to help the wounded,” Hoffman writes. “Then a blue van arrived and took one of the foreigners away. An ambulance arrived very soon thereafter.”
The family was left with grave — and growing — suspicions. The Payás’ daughter, Rosa María, later told a government forensic officer: “We have reasons to believe this was not an accident.”
The government withheld information on the circumstances and cause of Payá’s death, including his autopsy. At the funeral home, Ofelia was handed a document that said only that her husband died from an “injury to the nervous system.” That was all.
But that would not be all for Payá’s legacy. The writer Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo recalled that at Payá’s funeral, there arose from the pews spontaneous clapping accompanied by chants of liberty. It was, Lazo said, “a farewell to our hopes for a life in truth. It was a clapping from the soul.”
Yet the Cuban soul persists, as was evidenced through last year’s fresh burst of protest. As Hoffman observes, “an important legacy of Oswaldo’s quest was that gradually, painstakingly, despite all the obstacles and hardships, Cubans began to lose their fear and raise their voice against despotism.”
Vanessa Garcia is a screenwriter, novelist and playwright. Her children’s book, “What the Bread Says: Baking with Love, History, and Papan,” due out in October, explores baking and family history, particularly her grandfather’s escape from three tyrannies, including Castro’s Cuba.
The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and his Daring Quest for a Free Cuba
Simon & Schuster. 519 pp. $32.50