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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Paya: More than Just a Voice Crying in the Cuban Wilderness...

Audience with Pope John Paul II 
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

He could well have been referring to Cuba's opposition leader Oswaldo Paya, who like King, was a symbol of unwavering faith in God and of peaceful activism for a civil and just society.

At the age of 16, while serving a mandatory military stint under Cuba’s Communist regime, Paya refused to transport political prisoners, defying the orders of his superiors. The incident, despite his convictions, didn’t go over too well and earned him three years at a hard labor camp.

It was the first of many run-ins, arguably the most widely recognized and renowned human rights activist in Cuba’s opposition movement would have with the dictatorship and epitomizes the life of faith, principals, humility and deep sense of compassion for others, especially the oppressed in his homeland, that Paya lived from an early age. 

Tuesday morning, before the arrests of dozens of demonstrators, who started chanting, "Freedom!," during the funeral procession to the cemetery, hundreds of family, friends, and supporters crowded into the Savior of the World Catholic Church in Havana to remember that life and say a final farewell to this tireless voice for human dignity and peaceful transition on the island; who died under suspicious circumstances at the age of 60, along with another dissident, Harold Cepero, when the car they were traveling in with two foreign activists went off the road and plowed into a tree on Sunday afternoon.

According to reports, the Mass in his home-parish in the neighborhood of El Cerro, where Paya was baptized, confirmed, married and had been actively involved as a catechist and church council member, was full to capacity.

A letter of condolences by Pope Benedict XVI to Paya's wife, Ofelia Acevedo, and three adult children was read during the liturgical ceremony, which was celebrated by Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega and other clergy from the parish.

In a press release, Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski, who met and had held several conversations with Paya through the years, stated:

Cuba and the world mourn Oswaldo Payá. The unexpected and tragic death of this human rights activist is certainly a blow and a setback for Cuba's small civil society; yet, his example and his courage will continue to inspire those both inside and outside of Cuba who work and struggle for a peaceful but real transition in Cuba to a democratic form of government in which both human rights and the rule of law are protected. Oswaldo Payá was both a patriot and a committed Catholic layman: his vision for Cuba was founded as much in Catholic social teachings as in the thought of Felix Varela and Jose Marti. As a man of Christian faith he was not afraid to witness to hope in charity and in truth.
Paya gained international recognition when he founded a grass-root movement, called the Christian Liberation Movement, that drafted and spearheaded the Proyecto Varela, which called for a public referendum, among other things, to guarantee free elections, freedom of speech, of the press, of enterprise and amnesty for political prisoners in 2002.  The initiative was named after revered 19th Century Cuban priest Fr. Felix Varela,

Despite threats and constant harassment from the government, including being put under constant surveillance, arrests and repudiation rallies in front of his house, the group managed to collect over 25,000 signatures from average Cuban citizens, including 14,000 after forty of Paya's colleagues were arrested in what became known as the “Black Spring,” where seventy-five men were arrested under trumped up charges of violating national sovereignty and were sentenced to 12-28 years in prison in 2003.

The signatures were presented to the Castro government, who immediately rejected them.

Not long after, he was honored with the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov award for human rights, and received several other international honors, including in the U.S., where he was awarded the W. Averell Harriman Prize by the National Democratic Institute and an honorary Doctorate Degree of Law from Columbia University, and met with several presidents, prime ministers and government officials from around the world. He was also nominated at least four times for a Noble Peace Prize.

However, most of those who knew him well say Paya was, above all, a devout Catholic, husband and father.

He once said of his initiative, "The rights that we demand in the Varela Project are enunciated in the constitution.  But, we also have them because we are human beings; sons of God.  And, because of that, we will continue demanding them for all Cubans, with the faith that we will achieve them."

In the Book of Sirach, it states, "Call no man happy before his death, for by how he ends, a man is known."  Obviously, despite the tragic ending to his life on earth, Paya's true measure is the hope he brought to so many people, and going back to the MLK quote, in his relentless and tireless efforts for the sake of his countrymen, despite the hardships that he and his family may have had to endure.

Farewell to a great man, who will always be remembered in the hearts of Cubans in and out of the island...

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