Oswaldo José Payá Sardińas.
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Oswaldo José Payá Sardińas was born February 29, 1952 as the fifth of seven brothers and sisters. His father, Alejandro Payá, ran a small business while his mother, Iradia Sardińas, raised the children in a Catholic environment. The Payá Sardińas family
has never had ties to any of the Cuban governments nor to Fulgencia Batista’s dictatorship.
Payá and his family have suffered persecution since the beginning of the Revolution as a result of their steadfast loyalty to the Catholic faith, even during the worst periods of persecution. During his youth, Payá repeatedly demonstrated his tendency to think and act independently. He was the only member of his grade school class not to become a member of the Communist Youth, and he openly criticized the Soviet invasion of the
Czech Republic in 1968. Due to Payá’s openly critical position toward the regime, the Cuban authorities imprisoned him without judicial proceedings and sent him through various labor camps across the island for the next three years.
When Payá was released from the camps in 1972, he enrolled at the University of Havana to pursue a degree in physics, but he was again persecuted for his openly Catholic beliefs and dissenting ideology and was forced to leave. Employment was difficult to find and keep because of his beliefs, and the rest of his family began to encounter the same
harassment at work and school. Nonetheless, when offered an exit from the country by relatives in 1980, Payá refused. By the beginning of the 1980’s, Payá had become a specialist in electronic medical equipment, a job he holds to this day. He continued to be harassed by agents of the state security service, regularly followed, watched and threatened at home, work and church.
Despite this persecution, however, Payá continued to speak out against the government in more vocal ways. In February 1986, he defended Cuban Catholics’ absolute freedom to practice and called on the Church to denounce injustice as a delegate of the Havana diocese in the Cuban National Church meeting. The next year, he helped establish the Circle of Cuban Thoughts and launched “God’s People” (“Pueblo de Dios”), the first independent publication defending religious freedom and the freedom of all Cubans. After the Archbishop of Havana halted the publication and dissolved the Circle, Payá founded the Christian Liberation Movement (Movimiento Cristiano Liberación, MCL) in 1988. The
MCL is a non-violent civic movement that has repeatedly called for political and economic reform and the recognition of universal human rights for all individuals. In March 1990, he was detained for several days by the police, interrogated and threatened with several years in prison should he continue.
In 1992, Payá announced that he was running for a seat in the Cuban National Assembly.
State security arrested and paraded him through his Havana neighborhood to intimidate neighbors, and threatened that “his candidacy would have violent consequences”.
In 1995, Payá began voicing his criticism of U.S. policy toward Cuba, calling for the U.S. to lift its embargo on food and medicine to Cuba.
To reinforce the autonomy of Cuba’s opposition, Payá became one of the organizers of the Cuban Council that same year. The Council was a coalition of hundreds of organizations dedicated to the proposition that a democratic transition can be brought about by a peaceful process in which these organizations exercise their human and civic rights. Once
again, Payá was arrested by state security agents and ordered to disband the group. Upon his refusal, State Security fenced in Payá’s home to obstruct the Council’s meetings.
In 1997, Payá again attempted to run for a seat in the Cuban National Assembly. He received hundreds of signatures of support, but the electoral commission refused his candidacy.
From 1996 to 1997, Payá drafted the Varela Project (Proyecto Varela), which draws upon a provision in the Cuban constitution that enables citizens to introduce legislative initiatives when accompanied by 10,000 signatures. The initiative was launched in 1998, and on May 10, 2002, 11,020 signatures calling for a referendum on open elections, freedom of speech, freedom for political prisoners, free association and free enterprise were submitted to the Cuban National Assembly of People’s Power. Nearly 200 groups and personalities from across the ideological spectrum – known together as “All United” (Todos Unidos) – came together to support the project. The Cuban government tried several methods to quell the initiative, and on March 18, 2003, 75 civil society leaders, most of which were Varela Project organizers, were arrested, summarily tried and jailed. Despite the repression, Payá and other PV leaders continued the initiative and submitted 14,384 additional signatures in October 2003.
In December 2003, Payá invited all Cubans on the island and abroad to participate in a National Dialogue (Diálogo Nacional) on a peaceful democratic transition in Cuba. Payá plans to develop a plan for a transition to a democratic Cuba based on the results of thousands of discussion groups both on and off the island. This plan would be submitted to the Cuban national assembly for a referendum.
More recently, Payá has attempted to unite the often fractious peaceful, democratic opposition in Cuba with a Common Ground (Base Común) initiative. The initiative seeks to form a common front amongst the opposition based on agreed upon common principles.
Oswaldo Payá currently lives in Havana, Cuba with his wife, Ofelia, and their three children. He has been honored several times for his efforts. In 2002, he received the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and the National Democratic Institute’s W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award for his commitment to promoting democracy and human rights. In 2003, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by former Czech president Václav Havel and has been a candidate for the prize each year since. In March 2005 the Center for International Policy (CIP), a Washington-based foreign policy think tank, nominated Oswaldo Paya to receive the prestigious Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights.
In December 2005 Columbia University in New York awarded Payá a honorary Doctor of Laws degree . The university said in a statement that he was chosen because he represents "civic activism, and is a model for non-violent human rights advocacy," as Columbia Professor Gustavo Perez-Firmat said.
Original text in Spanish by Regis Iglesias Ramirez, member of the Christian Liberation Movement. Last updated May 2006 by me to add recent information.