Rosa María Payá Delivers Human Rights Award Despite Police Surveillance

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Today, Rosa María Payá, Cuban human rights activist and subject of our newest Witness Project video, awarded a prize in Havana—despite the fact that the recipients had been deported from the country and the location of the ceremony was surrounded by state security agents.

The award in question was the Oswaldo Payá Prize, named for Rosa María’s father, a prominent Cuban dissident and political activist killed in 2012, and this year’s laureate was the Democratic Initiative of Spain and the Americas (IDEA), an international forum comprised of 37 democratically elected former heads of state and government who work to promote the strengthening of democratic governance.

Oswaldo Payá is a fitting namesake for this award. His political activism spanned decades. As a student he refused to join the communist league; while performing his obligatory military service, he refused to transport political prisoners, and served three years of hard labor as a consequence; at the University of Havana, he was expelled for his Roman Catholic beliefs. In 1980, the Cuban government tried to get him to leave on the Mariel Boatlift, but like dissidents in so many other countries under communist rule, he chose to stay and fight.

In 1987, he founded the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), which used nonviolent civil disobedience to advocate for civil liberties and the release of political prisoners. In 1992, he was barred in his attempt to run for a seat in Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power. In 1996, Payá launched the Varela Project, a movement which aimed at collecting the 10,000 signatures that, according to Cuba law, would allow him to propose a law by citizen initiative. Despite the fact that he collected over 25,000 signatures, and that the initiative was praised by Jimmy Carter, the Cuban government refused to follow through, furiously denounced Payá, and ran a huge petition campaign of their own to cement the “irrevocable” nature of Cuba’s socialist constitution.

While Payá was harassed within Cuba—the members of his MCL comprised 40 of the 75 defendants in 2003’s “Black Spring” political trials—he was lionized on the world stage. In 2002, he received the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought; Czech President Václav Havel also nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

This, Castro could not abide. In 2012 Payá’s car was rammed by another vehicle on the road and crashed, killing him and one other passenger. Dozens of activists were arrested on the way to his funeral. The following year, his daughter Rosa María denounced the Cuban government before the UN, putting the lie to its claim that her father’s death was “accidental” and demanding an independent investigation.

Since then, she has appeared before the European Parliament, the US Senate, the Organization of American States, the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, and the Oslo Freedom Forum. Payá was also elected the president of the Latin American Youth Network for Democracy. In 2015, she launched a citizens’ initiative called Cuba Decide, calling for a binding referendum to establish free and fair elections and start the process of democratization in Cuba. She regularly returns to her home country, despite the baleful attentions of Raúl Castro's goons.

Today, March 8, Rosa María and the Latin American Youth Network for Democracy are presenting the second annual Oswaldo Payá Prize in her father’s house in Havana.

Naturally, Cuba’s communist regime loathes the very idea of this prize and has tried to smother the award ceremony. The two IDEA members who were supposed to receive the prize on behalf of the organization—Andrés Pastrana, former President of Colombia, and Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, former President of Bolivia—were held in the Havana airport upon their arrival to Cuba and then deported. Luis Almagro, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), who was refused entry to Cuba last year when he was the Oswaldo Payá Prize laureate, he was refused a visa this year as well. Granma, the Cuban state newspaper, declared that he would “never be welcome in the revolutionary Cuba of Fidel.” Jaime Bellolio, a Chilean legislator, was also refused entry to Cuba.

Within Cuba itself, numerous activists were detained by state security in order to prevent their attendance at the award ceremony. José Daniel Ferrer, the founder of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), Iván Hernández Carrillo, Secretary General of the Independent Trade Association of Cuba, and Sayli Navarro, an activist with the Ladies in White. have all been detained or held under house arrest.

The Castro regime can prevent activists like Rosa María, José Daniel, Iván, and Sayli from assembling freely and in peace. It can deport and refuse entry to politicians like Presidents Pastrana and Quiroga and General Secretary Almagro. But it cannot stop the slow, steady spread of ideas and civic organization. We congratulate IDEA for their prize and Rosa María for creating the award that bears her father’s name.

Want to hear more about Rosa María's struggle? Check out our newest Witness Project Video below.