Interview with David E. Hoffman, Biographer of Oswaldo Paya
By Vicente Morin Aguado
HAVANA TIMES – David E. Hoffman is a journalist born in Palo Alto, CA. in 1953. He won three National Journalism Awards during a decade of coverage for The Washington Post at the White House, during the Reagan administrations, and the early days of George Bush Sr. Then he was Post’s chief of the Moscow office of for 6 years.
His fourth book motivates the following interview: Give me Liberty, The true story of Oswaldo Paya and his daring quest for a free Cuba. (Simon & Schuster, 2022)
I met David E. Hoffman at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida, during the presentation of his recent biography on Oswaldo Paya, emblematic Cuban government opponent, Sakharov Prize for Human Rights of the European Parliament, Catholic and promoter of non-violence, who died in the still unclarified circumstances on July 22, 2012, because of a car accident.
Exploring the Nashville environment, as a newly arrived Cuban, I discovered another great bookstore, Barnes & Noble, part of picturesque Hendersonville, and the face of the Cuban martyr reappeared, motivating the following questions that the biographer answered.
Carlos Alberto Montaner, perhaps the most widely read Cuban Journalist in the Spanish language has written: “The acts that a liberal classifies in Russia as political crimes, he ignores when they occur in Cuba.”
Considering that you have written, and with remarkable success, on the Russian-Soviet subject, do you also suffer from this disappointment? Do you have an explanation?
I think what Carlos Alberto is saying is that when a government anywhere denies people basic rights —to free speech, belief, assembly, press and free enterprise— we should be equally concerned. The lack of rights cannot be ignored in Cuba any more than in Russia or China. Do you know that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written with the help of prominent Cubans, including the jurist Gustavo Gutiérrez, whose thinking about freedom and democracy informed the drafting process? The word “universal” meant that it would apply to all, and we should not forget that in today’s world. No country can simply check out.
This biography has the merit of addressing, between literature, testimony and the historical chronicle, a synthesis of the last 120 Cuban years. To what extent does Oswaldo Payá, a promoter of non-violence, fit in with what you as a researcher learn about our past?
What I learned is that, since 1902, there have been waves of Cubans who struggled to establish democracy, clean government, independence, and prosperity. They tried but didn’t always succeed. Take a look back at Gutiérrez’s generation, who came of age in the 1920s. They were discouraged by what they saw after two decades of statehood.
There were a series of rebellions – remember the Minoristas and the Veterans and Patriots? This generation was further discouraged by the Machado dictatorship. They discovered a new the visions of Jose Martí, in part through Jorge Mañach’s book, “Martí: Apostle of Freedom.” By 1940, Cubans had come together to write a new Constitution that was the most democratic (and long-winded) in their history. It was followed by 12 years of constitutional transfer of power, although the scourge of corruption lingered, some semblance of democracy existed.
The 1940 Constitution contained a small but essential provision allowing for a citizen initiative—for the people to take charge and ask for laws. This provision amazingly remained during Fidel Castro’s revolution. And when Oswaldo Paya began to advance the Varela Project in the late 1990s, it was this provision that allowed him to seek signatures for a citizen initiative. So yes—the waves of change are connected. Unfortunately, there were also waves of repression and falling backwards.
Ignoring sales figures tell us at least one pleasant and an unpleasant anecdote about the reception of your book.
One of the most pleasant aspects of the reception was our event at Books & Books in Coral Gables, with the Payá family present, and also the Gutiérrez family, and many other people familiar with the story. The most unpleasant by far is the simple fact that Oswaldo Paya is not with us, and he must rely on me and his friends and family to tell the story.
To what extent were the authorities in Cuba hostile with regard to investigating the life of a notorious political opponent like Oswaldo Paya?
The authorities in Cuba have never conducted a thorough investigation into Oswaldo Paya’s death. They charged the driver of the car, Angel Carrromero, with homicide, and put him on trial, and convicted him. But Carromero later said he was forced to give a false confession. At no time did the authorities in Cuba admit that the car carrying Oswaldo Paya was rammed from behind by state security. I hope they will agree to conduct a real investigation and release the autopsy report to the Paya family. That would be a start.
Did you try to go to Cuba as part of your investigation?
Yes, I went to Cuba. I walked the streets where Oswaldo Paya lived and worked. I devoted time to archival research, much of it outside the island. Please look at the endnotes to see the sources. Some of the records of the 1940 constituent assembly are still not public and I was not able to see them (although I asked) but the transcripts of the floor debate are open, and online. I used the extensive literature about the Cuban Republic, and the transcripts of Fidel. Most of the people necessary to interview for the book — those who knew Paya and worked with him — are no longer in Cuba, so I found them elsewhere, including the United States, Spain, Sweden and Germany.
To this day, do you think that your US compatriots understand the drama of the Cuban people?
Yes, I do, and I think the story of Cuba runs deep through the fabric of life in the United States. The story of the revolution and its failings is widely known and, as a reminder, about 300,000 Cubans fled the island over a year’s time. Their flight to exile says a lot about conditions in Cuba, and in the United States, it is impossible to ignore this sad and enduring catastrophe. Those people didn’t take chances on rafts or overland because they were happy and prosperous in Cuba. On their faces today is written the tragic drama of the economic and political failures of the revolution.
Can you comment on the reception of your book among US politicians. Some important names that can be mentioned.
I really do not like to boast. Oswaldo Paya was not always well understood by politicians in the United States, especially in the exile community, but I think he is better understood now in the US, and his legacy and ideals are highly regarded.
I appreciate your modesty, but maybe without mentioning names, I would like to know if there is evidence that this biography is known in the American political sphere.
Well, the book was featured at a number of events in Washington and Miami, including the Cuban Heritage Collection, the National Endowment for Democracy, and excerpts were published in The Washington Post. Honestly, it is hard for me to judge the impact but I do think Oswaldo Payá is better known and understood in the United States than he was in 2003.
According to your long experience as a journalist, what sensitive aspects could help Cuban journalists opposed to the ruling regime in Cuba, to gain support and sensitivity in US society.
Look, there is no secret to journalism. You ask questions and try to find out what happened. In an open society this is a daily routine, rather like the first coffee of the morning. But in closed societies like Cuba, such questions are prohibited. Why? What is the regime afraid of? So it is harder in a closed environment to ask questions, but journalism is not a crime. Reporting is not treason. But in a dictatorship, it takes a great deal of courage to be a journalist. More power to those who try against the odds.
The historical figure you biographed, is part of a list of political leaders whose preaching and personal nonviolent action led them to be victims of murder. Such as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi; is Paya one more of this tragic list?
Sadly, yes. But it is more important to focus on his life, and there you will see he is also a historic figure. I often say he is like Andrei Sakharov, who challenged the totalitarian Soviet state. Sakharov saw the flaws in the Soviet system, and eventually decided to stand up to them. Oswaldo Payá had the same sense of determination, the same moral compass, the same commitment to basic human rights.
Some lesson derived from Paya’s life could be a compass for those who formulate policy towards Cuba?
Oswaldo Paya challenged Fidel from within. Once, during the Mariel boatlift, his relatives came and offered to bring him back to Florida. Way back then, Oswaldo said, “I am not going to leave. It is Fidel who must leave.” His point was that change has to come from within in order to be sustainable and legitimate. The 11J protests were a good example of change from within. The future of Cuba is not going to be decided by the United States, nor in the United States. Those who formulate policy toward Cuba should do everything they can that the desire for change from within is taking Cuba to a better future. This means enabling those forces for change.
What can you say to English-speaking people, especially from the USA, as a recommendation for them to read Give me Liberty, The true story of Oswaldo Paya and his daring quest for a free Cuba?
Right now, the world seems to be awash in dictatorships. Look at China, Russia, Belarus, Burma. Look at the lack of freedoms even in places like Turkey, Egypt, Cambodia. The rollback of democracy is deeply concerning. The story of Oswaldo Payá is about one man’s effort to cause change in the other direction—to establish rights and democratic governance where there is now a dictatorship. Oswaldo Payá had the inspiration, stamina and vision to carry out this campaign, and I think it is profoundly inspiring, especially at this dark hour in which totalitarianism is returning to the globe.
*Other books by David E. Hoffman
– The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia. (Public Affairs, 2002), ISBN 978-1-58648-001-1.
– The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy (Doubleday, 2009), ISBN 978-0-385-52437-7 (Premio Pulitzer de 2010).
– The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal, Nueva York, Doubleday, 2015, ISBN 978-0385537605.