Rosa María Payá has personally suffered at the hands of Cuba’s tyrants. Now she fights against their cruelty toward all Cubans.
On July 22, 2012, in the neighborhood of El Cerro in Havana, Cuba, Rosa María Payá said goodbye to her father as she would have on any other day, with a kiss on the cheek. But that day would not be like every other day.
After lunch, she received a series of muddled texts: An accident. Militia everywhere. Three people taken to the hospital. “Help!”
She called her father’s phone. Over and over again. No answer.
Finally, around 4 p.m., someone picked up. Immediately, Rosa María called out: “Papá, papá, papá.” A female voice responded, stumbled, claimed to be a doctor. Finally, the voice said: “There has been a fatality.”
That was the moment when Rosa María Payá understood her father had been murdered by the Castro regime.
Her father was Oswaldo Payá, head of the Varela Project, which he launched in the late ’90s, proposing freedom of speech, association, religion, and press, along with free elections, free enterprise, and the release of political prisoners in Cuba.
Oswaldo, a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr., had found a loophole in an otherwise sealed state. Cuban law allowed citizens to propose legal initiatives as long as they had over 10,000 signatures. Gathering 10,000 signatures, however, under a repressive regime that imprisons any voice that stands against it, or worse, cuts its life off, was not an easy feat.
Payá himself had been sent to a labor camp at 17, alongside hippies, gay men, Christians, writers, and anyone who held a different viewpoint from that of the state — people whom the state considered “scum”; “escoria.” He’d seen and felt the suffering and repression firsthand, in the flesh.
Despite all odds, Payá collected 25,000 signatures from the Cuban people, who beat down their fear and put their names and addresses down on paper in the hopes of freedom. For his work, he won the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize in 2002 and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice.
Instead of acquiescing to the first 10,000 signatures, as the law allowed, however, the Cuban regime changed the constitution to announce that socialism was now “irrevocable,” codifying the dictatorship. That’s the way totalitarianism works. There is no law. There is only tyranny: in this case, a dictatorship that has held its foot on the necks of its people for six decades as they have begged for the right to think for themselves — to breathe.
Oswaldo refused to give up, and so the Cuban regime made sure to dig its foot in deeper until it choked off his last breath.
The Cuban government, of course, calls his death a “car accident.” Witnesses say otherwise. Autopsies have never been released.
Angel Carromero, who was in the car when Payá was killed — currently the secretary general of the Madrid regional branch of the Spanish People’s Party’s youth organization — says the car was rammed into time and again, terrifyingly pushing them off the road. The same thing had happened to Payá just two months before, although that time he’d escaped with his life.
“For those culpable of the death of Oswaldo and Harold, you should search within the dome of the Cuban dictatorship,” writes Carromero.
Harold was Harold Cepero, a young Cuban and dear friend of Rosa María Payá, who had often said his calling was “to fight for my people” — a fight for which he lost his life at 32.
“After the first two or three days of the worst kind of shock and panic,” Rosa María told me, “I knew I had to continue my father’s work. We couldn’t abandon everything he’d done. If anything, what had happened confirmed the effectiveness of what he was doing.”
From 2015 to the present, she has continued her father’s fight for basic human rights in Cuba, the right to think, choose, prosper, breathe. In 2015 she started a movement called Cuba Decide, toward a Cuba where there are no arbitrary arrests, where people can travel without permission from the state, where there is no religious persecution, where no one is exiled, jailed, or killed for their beliefs. A Cuba in which Cubans can decide their own future.
On March 16, 2016, she and other Cuba Decide leaders presented the Cuban parliament with more than 10,000 new signatures in support of the Varela Project, calling for multiparty elections. This was predictably denied. Since then, she’s met with and tried to garner the support of the international community without cease.
In 2019 she was awarded the Morris Abram Award at the UN Watch Annual Gala in Geneva. Also in 2019, members of Cuba Decide within the island demonstrated bravely across Cuba from Las Tunas to Matanzas, Camaguey to Santiago de Cuba, alongside UNPACU, another dissident movement on the island. Many were imprisoned.
By February 2020, Cuba Decide had received the support of groups within the European Parliament. In March, Paraguay officially recognized the Cuba Decide initiative as well. In May 2020, Cuba Decide achieved the largest humanitarian citizen-donations campaign for the island in decades, which the Cuban government then proceeded to block.
Given this background, it is perhaps inevitable that Rosa María has risen to a position of leadership.
She was born in 1989. Her mother rocked Rosa in her arms as the Berlin Wall crumbled and the promise of freedom vibrated amongst Cubans inside and outside the island. Instead of falling, however, the Cuban regime made a series of crooked deals that kept it in power. International corporations contributed to providing another lifeline to a regime that received the rest of its oxygen from democide and repression.
The first time I met Rosa María, she told me she was raised a “free person.” Despite the regime they lived under, her father always told her to speak her mind and they would deal with the consequences — consequences that, for many of us, living in the U.S., are unimaginable; consequences that her father paid for with his life.
“The majority of my friends at school thought like us, but had to show a different face to society, a posturing which was a result of pure fear. Generations and generations accustomed to the idea that one thing is what one truly thinks, and another very different thing is what you project in school and at work,” Rosa María says.
Today she is the same age that her friend, Harold Cepero, was when he was killed. She is fighting from outside the island, as she has a sentence upon her head in Cuba for insisting on living as a free person. She has not been able to return to Cuba since 2018. This is not uncommon in Cuban history. José Martí, Cuba’s most famous patriot poet, helped to liberate Cuba from the Spanish yoke from the shores of New York and Tampa, Fla.
On July 20, two days before the ninth anniversary of her father’s death, I had the great honor of accompanying Rosa María to testify in Washington, at a hearing regarding protests in Cuba and the crackdown on free expression. There she shared her people’s suffering and stated that what they were clearly asking for was what they were chanting in the streets, against threat of death: Liberty!
Actionably, she asked the U.S. to apply individual sanctions on top officials and individuals abusing human rights in Cuba by making use of the Global Magnitsky Act.
She asked the United States to approach Cuba as it did apartheid: requiring companies to embrace the Sullivan Principles, which call for them to support human rights in places where they do business, instead of providing lifelines for tyranny.
She asked that the U.S. help provide Internet access to Cubans, bypassing the censorship of the regime, which controls all lines of communication into and out of the island.
She asked that the U.S. invite the European Union and the Organization of American States (OAS) to take similar steps and to use all the tools at their disposal, including the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, to address threats posed by the Cuban regime.
She asked that the regime continue to be excluded from the Summit of the Americas until it complies with the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
The message was clear: The United States must do everything within international law to protect the people of Cuba and give them hope as they fight to free themselves, despite the regime’s sending black berets into the street to terrorize them, their families, their children.
One day after the ninth anniversary of Oswaldo Payá’s death, a full-page paid advertisement appeared in the New York Times, which turned a blind eye to the people of Cuba. It was a letter to President Biden, penned out of either malice or ignorance, and signed by Susan Sarandon, Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, and Mark Ruffalo, alongside other Hollywood stars and academics, blaming everything that is happening in Cuba on the United States and its embargo.
This has been the Cuban regime’s line for years. It preys upon our ability as Americans to self-criticize, though to do so without true knowledge is not only irresponsible, it’s deadly.
During the 2017 Emmys, Jane Fonda, who, with a net worth of $200 million, has benefited a great deal from the capitalist democracy she lives under, enjoyed with vigor the right to voice her opinion. She and Lily Tomlin (who did not sign the letter) used comedy and their platform to protest against Trump, refusing to be “controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” just as their characters had in the much-loved ’80s classic 9 to 5. I’m all for using one’s voice, but for this humorous protest, a person in Cuba would have been jailed or killed. That is not the fault of the embargo; the embargo exists because of that fact.
I myself have wavered on the embargo throughout the years, so I understand the impulse. But it’s important not to waver now, at this crucial moment. We must help the people directly. And what I know for sure is that to make the embargo the single issue is to ignore the greater one at hand: the claws of the Cuban dictatorship. It is to ignore the Cuban people on the island as well as those who have managed to escape the regime’s teeth, like my grandparents, one of whom was a political prisoner for 15 years. It is to choose the single line of the totalitarian state that oppresses my people.
The people who signed this letter are also people from communities I consider myself a part of as a Ph.D. writer and screenwriter — people I can converse with and trust will not “marginalize” me for my experience and research-driven opinion. I also happen to be a registered independent who has always voted blue in presidential elections and is now penning this piece in a conservative paper. This is the kind of glorious nuance we constantly take for granted in our country, the nuance at the center of our democracy, and one that I honor daily as an American citizen.
All of this matters because, as Americans, our voice counts, our opinions and viewpoints count. Whom we choose to listen to on issues is everything, as we look toward policy. And so it is my responsibility to give American readers an alternative voice to that of the Cuban regime and its single story.
I offer Rosa María Payá as a counter: Someone who has not just scratched her nail upon the surface of a foreign people’s pain, but has been in the trenches, flesh and blood, inside the entrails of a beast that most Americans will be lucky enough to never experience, not even close. Someone who knows the difference between the voice of the Cuban people and the tentacles of a dictatorship and its propaganda machine, thrashing to survive.