The Loves of Oswaldo Paya

Fernando Ravsberg*

Oswaldo Paya was the dissident who had the most social ties, the largest group, and who worked and was a part of the church. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — My mother taught me never to gauge people by their political positions, because those are always misleading. “Look at how they behave in everyday life, with their family, their friends and at work. You can’t go wrong because nobody can pretend that much,” she told me.

I remembered this with the death of Oswaldo Paya, who I met in the early 90’s when he was an active Catholic layman, to the point that we would meet at churches. I can’t say how many times we met since then, but there were many.

Later he began to me to his house, where the interviews never ended with the final question; his approach was to offer a cup a coffee at the end so as to generate a debate in which he seemed to contrast his own opinions about the national situation.

Few times did we ever agree, as is almost always the case between a politician and a journalist, but this always made the conversation more interesting. Although he was a passionate person and held strong convictions, he knew how to engage in respectful dialogue.

What’s more, Oswaldo was much more in touch with the nation’s feelings than other dissidents. He didn’t live isolated; he led the opposition group with the largest number of supporters (one able to collect 15,000 signatures), was linked to the Christian community and earned his living working.

Usually, the interviews he gave me would take place at noon or after 4:00 pm, because in between was the time he would go from hospital to repair medical equipment. It’s true that he had more time than others, since he wasn’t invited to meetings of the union, the administration or the Party.

In the church, his widow asked for no political slogans but that people pray for his soul. Photo: Raquel Perez.

For two decades I visited his home trying to get his opinion on one topic or another. From interview to interview I saw his children grow up and got a sense of his relationship with his wife, who would invariably appear with the coffee and join in our conversation.

I remembered those meetings when we met at the church in the Cerro neighborhood. I saw the pain of his family and the warm openness of his widow when she reminded the dissidents present in the chapel that the funeral rites were going to be for praying – not for chanting political slogans.

Because the Paya family is a truly a Christian family.

The government accused Oswaldo of using the church as a springboard for engaging in his political activities. However I think he was based there earlier; he was a Catholic first and later became a dissident.

In the eulogy, Bishop Juan de Dios Hernandez said Oswaldo had three loves in his life: Cuba, the church and Jesus Christ. He added that it was not always easy to reconcile these allegiances and that those of us who knew him also knew that he was tormented by this in recent years.

In our most recent “post-interview” conversations, I could detect some bitterness in him over the position of the Catholic leadership in relation to Raul Castro. He was convinced that they had conspired to create a Christian-Democrat party to replace the dissent movement.

Despite political differences, the Catholic Church paid him tribute. Photo: Raquel Perez.

Nonetheless he always accused individuals and never the Catholic Church. To that institution he rendered absolute fidelity, comparable only to that felt by the Communists for their party. My ever-present skepticism is still stunned by such signs of devotion.

But his church no longer had the same faith in him. Oswaldo had become an obstacle to improving relations with the Cuban government, a policy that began in February 2008 with the visit to Cuba by the secretary of the Vatican state, Tarcisio Bertone.

It was no coincidence that the cardinal was the first visitor received by Raul Castro after being confirmed as president or that this guest avoided meeting with dissidents during his stay. Oswaldo assured me at that time that this was a tactical maneuver; he refused to recognize that we were witnessing a strategic shift.

But all of these ups and downs of policy are only stories devoid of value before the implacable presence of death. I for one hope that Oswaldo was right in his certainty about the existence of God, and that he can now rest in peace.
(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original published by BBC Mundo.