The Courage to Counter Castro

REVIEW: Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and His Daring Quest for a Free Cuba

September 11, 2022

What would I be willing to risk or endure in order to live a life where free political discussion and action is possible? This is a question that readers of David Hoffman’s Give Me Liberty might put to themselves after thinking through the life of Oswaldo Payá and his battle with communist tyranny in Cuba.

Payá was 13 years old when the Castro regime seized his father’s newspaper distribution business in 1965. Oswaldo’s father Alejandro was arrested. This was the beginning of a campaign against private businesses that lasted three years—the implementation of a socialist morality that denounced and punished vendors and businessmen as parasites. Young Oswaldo had been the only boy in his class to refuse entry into the Jose Martí Pioneers—the communist youth organization in Cuba. The family’s observant Catholicism only added to the stigma the Payás experienced. Alejandro was released after one week and told his family not to express any complaint. He recommended a strategy of public compliance. He urged his children to do well in school, work hard, and prepare for the future. "You have to yield—in order to triumph," he said. This was not a strategy Oswaldo would adopt.

Hoffman interweaves two other stories around the central tale of Payá’s confrontation with the communist regime. First, he encapsulates Cuba’s post-colonial history, focusing in particular on the story of the Cuban constitution of 1940. We meet Gustavo Gutiérrez, an advocate for constitutional democracy who wrote a draft constitution for Cuba in the mid-1930s. Important for Payá’s story, a key provision of Gutierrez’s draft found its way into the Cuban constitution of 1940: new laws could be proposed by congressmen and Senators, but also by citizens—in this latter case, the initiative would require the endorsement of "at least ten thousand citizens having the status of voters."

Second, Hoffman explores Fidel Castro’s rise to power and his construction of Cuban communism. Castro initially presented himself as an agent of Cuban democracy, promising elections in the aftermath of a successful revolutionary seizure of power. He even pledged to make the 1940 constitution the "supreme law of the land." By May 1961 he declared that constitution dead and promised a new "socialist constitution" that would introduce "a new social system without the exploitation of many by man." This purported end of exploitation would of course require extraordinary levels of surveillance and coercion. Already in 1960 Castro put in place Committees for the Defense of the Revolution—what he called a "system of collective vigilance." These organizations could be found in neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools. Hoffman calls them the "foundation stones of the police state" as they created a vast network of monitors and informants. By the mid-1960s the regime had built the UMAP (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción) labor camp system to house anyone hostile or even potentially hostile to socialist revolution.

Oswaldo Payá ended up cutting sugar cane in one of the camps in the summer of 1969. After a year he was flown to the Isle of Pines, which housed a prison complex built in the 1920s where he would work breaking rocks in a quarry 10 hours a day. The restrictions here were less onerous than in the UMAP system, so Payá and some of his fellow prisoners were able to explore the small town of Nueva Gerona on the weekends. They stumbled on a library across the street from a church and read Orwell’s Animal Farm, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and the works of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. These men who had been declared enemies or deviants found a refuge and "reveled in the freedom to think and talk." As Hoffman puts it, "The forced labor camps attempted to ‘reeducate’ and ‘retrain’ the outsiders, to coerce them to believe in the revolution. But for Oswaldo Payá, the experience was the opposite. They had not conquered his soul. They had nourished it."

It’s not clear whether Payá would share the sentiments of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (one of his heroes), "Bless you, prison, for having been in my life," but he did find the atmosphere in Havana suffocating by contrast. He hoped to study physics at university but campus life was so conformist and ideologically charged he couldn’t stand it. "They didn’t kick me out but they asphyxiated me," he noted. He eventually got a degree in electrical engineering via night school in 1983. Shortly thereafter he found his vocation through the Catholic Church.

Castro’s revolution had brought the Church to the brink of destruction. Prior to the revolution there had been about 1 priest for every 9,000 people in Cuba. By 1980 that figure was about 1 priest for every 45,000. Fewer than 1 percent of Catholics were practicing. In 1985 the archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega, invited Payá to be one of 173 delegates to a conference on the future of the Cuban church. With his then-fiancé Ofelia, he prepared a document called "Faith and Justice." In it he argued that Catholics must be free to speak the truth about injustice and oppression and to resist being pushed to the margins of society. He presented his ideas at a meeting of the delegates before the conference and was immediately denounced.

Just over a decade later Payá launched the Varela Project, a citizen petition demanding freedom of assembly, amnesty for political prisoners, the right to engage in private enterprise, and the establishment of a new electoral code allowing for free elections. The movement culminated in Payá submitting a formal citizen’s petition to the National Assembly on May 10, 2002—with over 11,000 signatures.

Payá’s stature grew internationally as he was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights and Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament. He met with Václav Havel and Pope John Paul II, and the Varela Project continued adding signatures to its petition. Cuban state security was not unprepared for this challenge. In the 1980s a Cuban named Jacinto Valdés-Dapena had gone to Potsdam to study with the Stasi—East German state security. There he learned a strategy for dealing with dissidents known as Zersetzung or decomposition. He brought back to Cuba techniques of covert psychological warfare to infiltrate dissident movements, sow distrust among members, and exploit envy and jealousy. Hoffman relates the grinding battles between Payá and his allies and Cuban state security in riveting detail.

Oswaldo Payá died in a car crash on July 22, 2012—a crash many suspect was orchestrated by Cuban state security. Like many prominent dissidents of the 20th century, Payá embodied an extraordinary combination of courage and humility. Hoffman’s book is a powerful antidote to delusions about the reality of Cuban communism. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a study of character in action—a test of virtue in a soil of unfreedom. One hopes that the seeds of virtue left by Payá will bear fruit soon.

Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and His Daring Quest for a Free Cuba
by David E. Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, 544 pp., $32.50

Flagg Taylor, a professor in the department of political science at Skidmore College, was editor, most recently, of The Long Night of the Watchman: Essays by Václav Benda, 1977-1989, and hosts the Enduring Interest Podcast. You can find him on Twitter: @FlaggTaylor4