Remarks by Carl Gershman at the Conference on the Legacy of Oswaldo Paya, a Cuban Martyr

I’m very pleased that David Hoffman is part of this panel, since it was he who conducted the interview published in The Washington Post in March 2013 in which Angel Carromero said publicly for the first time that the car he was driving in eastern Cuba on July 22, 2020, was rammed from behind by a red Lada with Cuban government license plates, leading to the deaths of Oswaldo Paya and his young associate Harold Cepero, who were riding in the rear seat.  David is now working on a biography of Paya that I know will explain the importance of this great man and why he was so feared by the Cuban dictatorship. 

It’s also a great pleasure to be together this evening, virtually at least, with my friend Martin Palous, who was to Vaclav Havel what Harold Cepero was to Paya, a young acolyte in the struggle for freedom.  

Paya was the Havel of Cuba, meaning that he was Cuba’s most widely known and internationally respected democratic dissident, the embodiment of the Cuban people’s hope for a peaceful path to freedom.  Havel had nominated Paya for the Nobel Peace Prize because he believed that the honor would give Paya the global recognition he deserved and would aid the Cuban struggle for freedom.  For the same reason, he also nominated Liu Xiaobo of China for the Nobel Prize.  Like Havel, both Paya and Liu Xiaobo were intellectually gifted leaders of nonviolent movements of resistance to communist totalitarianism, and both were killed by their respective regimes.  

Paya’s affinity with Havel, and through Havel with Liu Xiaobo as well, explains why his legacy is so enduring.  He was not just a dissident and opposition leader but a moral voice that had global resonance.  He was able to represent an alternative identity for the Cuban people after two generations of Castroism’s assault on truth and human decency because he had an indestructible moral core that the Cuban regime couldn’t touch or intimidate.

The battle for freedom is very hard, not least because its enemies are skillful at trying to hide their crimes behind a façade of propaganda.  Havel famously once said that the power of the powerless in resisting totalitarianism is to live within the truth, which he said was a threat to a political system based on lies.  Paya understood this very well.

Like Havel, he was a person who also lived in truth and who understood the need to challenge the Cuban regime’s Orwellian inversion of that truth.  He made this clear in a memorable video message that he sent to the memorial meeting we held for Havel in January 2012.  Raul Castro had just announced some cosmetic reforms to stimulate Cuba’s crippled economy and to make it appear to the outside world that Cuba was changing for the better.  Paya called it “fraudulent change” under which “those that have all the power may keep it and once more marginalize the people of Cuba.”  

This was several years before the normalization of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States during the Obama Administration.  But Paya was already saying that the really urgent need was for the normalization of relations between the Cuban government and the Cuban people.  That was the essence of his Varela Project that called for giving the Cuban people the opportunity to vote in favor of freedom of association and expression, freedom of the press, free elections, the right to operate private businesses, and an amnesty for political prisoners – democracy, in other words.  

Oswaldo Paya gave his life for democracy in Cuba.  And so did his young associate Harold Cepero, whom his friends called “a sunrise for the Cuban nation.”

We remember them this evening on this anniversary of their martyrdom.  Their vision lives on in the continuing and broadening Cuban struggle for the basic freedoms Paya called for in the Varela Project.  That struggle will eventually prevail, and when it does, Paya will be remembered, along with Felix Varela and Jose Marti, as a national hero who led the fight not only for Cuban freedom but for the recovery of the Cuban soul. 

Let me say in closing that it has been incredibly gratifying for me to watch as Rosa Maria has grown in her effort to carry on her father’s struggle and to realize his dream.  If my admiration of what she has done in the past eight years is any measure, I can only imagine how very proud her father would be that she herself has become a leader in the fight for freedom.