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Payá biography recounts how the Varela Project laid the groundwork for today's Cuban dissident push

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AP
Oswaldo Paya at work in his Havana home on the Varela Project petitions

David Hoffman's "Give Me Liberty" examines Oswaldo Payá's odyssey from a defiant young Catholic to the dogged dissident who rattled Cuba's communist state.

It’s been a decade since Cuba’s most prominent dissident, Oswaldo Payá, died in a suspicious car accident on the island. An important new biography of Payá was presented at Books & Books in Coral Gables Wednesday night, and WLRN spoke with the author, David E. Hoffman.

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The Cuban regime denies it, but many believe it was responsible for Payá’s 2012 death — because few dissidents ever challenged, and rattled, the communist state as seriously as Payá did. At the turn of the century, his petition drive, known as the Varela Project, collected tens of thousands of bona fide signatures from Cubans demanding a referendum for democratic change such as free elections.

The Cuban Revolution had never been confronted with that widespread and adamant expression of popular dissent.

The late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, of course, never permitted the plebiscite those signatures were supposed to trigger under the Constitution; he instead threw scores of Varela activists in prison. But in "Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and His Daring Quest for a Free Cuba," Hoffman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Washington Post editorial writer, recounts how that David-versus-Goliath drama laid the groundwork for Cuban dissident movements today, including last summer's “Patria y Vida" protests.

“Oswaldo would say: ‘Conquer your fear; demand your rights,'" Hoffman told WLRN.

"Your rights are given to you by God and not by the state. So be the protagonists of your own history.’ And I think actually that’s what movements like ‘Patria y Vida’ and San Isidro are about now.”

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Hoffman’s biography follows Payá's trajectory from the defiant Catholic teenager the regime punished by sending him to an island to do hard labor, to the soft-spoken hospital technician who refused exile and decided to doggedly take on Cuba's dictatorship using its own bylaws.

"To me, it's an endless fascination how one person can tackle a big totalitarian system that way," said Hoffman, who has written books on the Soviet Union. "What does it take?"

Hoffman also examines the uneasy relationship between Payá and Miami’s Cuban exile community — which initially distrusted Payá’s effort to confront the Cuban regime through legal means rather than exile-led insurrection.

“Oswaldo’s lesson is that Cubans have to change Cuba themselves," Hoffman said.

"This is not going to be something to come from the United States; it’s not going to come from elsewhere. It has to come from within.”

Hoffman said in that regard, Payá can be compared with such Cold War European dissidents as Russia's Andrei Sakharov (in 2002 Payá won the human rights award named for Sakharov), the former Czechoslovakia's Václav Havel and Poland's Lech Walesa.

Hoffman presented his book alongside Payá's daughter, Rosa María Payá, herself a Cuban human rights activist who now lives in Miami.