By Sascha Hannig

It was a cold Christmas night, one of those nights that freezes the toes & forms icy breath clouds. At the Kremlin, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) flag waved for one last time, while on television, President Gorbachov, holding no real power anymore, presented his resignation. It was 1991, and the world was heading into a new era, &as it began to wonder what the nations’ destiny would be with the new independence.

It was in those same years (almost concurrent with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989) that dissident Rosa María Payá was born in communist Cuba. Daughter of the activist Oswaldo Payá, who died in an accident in 2012 attributed to Cuban intelligence after dedicating his life to achieving a democratic change for his country.

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Oswaldo Payá, Rosa Maria’s father.

Rosa María, with a degree in Physics from the University of Havana, has continued her parents’ legacy and today leads the ‘Cuba Decide’ movement. As soon as the interview begins, Rosa clearly states her position: ‘the Cuban totalitarianism, the communist regime from Havana, has completely failed in its ability to respond to the basic needs of the Cuban people who continue with no rights’, she says with a confident voice. She is one of those people convinced they are defending what is right. You can see it in her face, in her words, and in her eyes.

Rosa María Payá (RMP): “I grew up in Cuba during what is known as the ‘Special Period’, the period that came after the collapse of the USSR, when the economic support ended which provided the Cuban system a means of survival. Between 1991 and 2000, the existing economic crisis worsened and as a result led to population wide weight loss, where Cubans on average lost several pounds. People began to get sick, to lose their eyesight, due to a lack of vitamins at that time. Poverty in Cuba is a ruthless reality, in almost every country, or in most democratic countries in the world, there are several ways out of poverty, there are things that human beings can do to rise above themselves and be self-sufficient in some way, something not possible in Communism.

Author: Growing up in that decade was especially hard for the children born in countries that decided to maintain totalitarian and closed systems. Cuba, without powerful allies, with a strengthened and restrictive western block, and with the end of the COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance), began to crumble due to the unsustainability of its own system. The regime more than ever began to restrict the access to food, fuels, and other imported goods. As a consequence, the economy shrunk by 36% between 1990 and 1993, recovering only in 2007. The consequences? General malnutrition (5 to 25% weight loss in adults) and a 20% mortality increase in senior adults between 1982 and 1992. While there was not such a high increase in infant mortality, this was due mainly to a direct government strategy to ensure the life of children born despite economic conditions. However, maternal deaths increased by 43% in that period, and by 60% directly due to pregnancies

RMP: In this period, my siblings and I were just children and children of dissidents, besides. In reality, although that is how the world knew Cuba then, they were simply two people that decided to dedicate their lives changing it for the better. This meant denouncing a totalitarian regime and proposing reforms and concrete changes for rights to be guaranteed. 

That meant directly putting at risk the absolute power of the Castro family and the group of generals. The response was complete repression, that was what we lived through. 

I remember the ‘Repudiation Meetings’ when I was a child, which was something very similar to what was done in Nazi Germany against Jews’ homes. In fact, this happened to anyone who had a different point of view, not just to dissidents, people that left the country in the 80s also suffered, being robbed of their homes, sometimes a total assault.”

They attacked the people who escaped or their families?

Both. Imagine, I was a girl in the 90s, I couldn’t be a dissident simply because I didn’t know then what it meant. However, the National Security would visit the school where my siblings and I studied. They visited the hospital and the doctors that treated us, our classmates’ parents, & our teachers. The regime’s goal with this type of prosecution is to isolate everyone who had a different view. Doing this installs fear, stifles, or takes down the work of anyone trying to make real changes, but also to make examples of people, so they tell others: ‘See what can happen to you if you try to go against us’.

You felt that difference, for example, at school? The difference of how your classmates were treated and how it affected you at school?

Yes, of course we felt it, so did our classmates. Even our teachers felt the pressure. Most Cubans were totally against the system, but it is one thing to be against the system, and another one to express it. Having the courage and the freedom to live according to your values, which is precisely what a totalitarian system prevents, especially a communist system.

Nobody in Cuba likes to receive a visit from National Security, where two G2 agents come from an organization that everyone knows murders, imprisons, beats, and can get you fired from your job. Even the police are afraid of the G2. Those were the agents that visited the Cuban people, who circled in our neighborhood.  On the one hand, the environment was totally tense, but on the other, as children and later as adolescents we had freedom, something our classmates at university did not have. We lived in alignment with our values & freedom of speech, that was public knowledge. We accepted the consequences, while others we interacted with or a part of them thought as we did, we had to handle this dichotomy, this double moral due to fear.

The image of the ‘balsero’ has become an international icon of the Cuban dissidence, how Cubans risked their own lives in rafts to get to Miami. Did your family ever think about leaving Cuba?

My family’s choice was to stay and change the system. That Cubans should never have to look elsewhere what we should, by right, be able to find and build in our own country like the Cuban ‘balseros’, those who escaped in rafts to The United States. As we talk, there are ‘balseros’ still adrift. Last week the American Coast Guard returned 25 Cubans who had been caught at sea or at the coast trying to reach the USA in rafts, an untold reality, but we are talking about tens of thousands of people risking their lives trying to escape. 

While many never make it to the Miami coast…

Tens of thousands of Cubans have disappeared. Those that their mothers said farewell to at the shore, who never heard of their children again, their wives nor their parents… 

Author: There aren’t exact numbers that show how many people died trying to cross to the United States from Cuba. Some sources claim that, during the last three decades, more than 80 thousand ‘balseros’ have been caught, and also estimates that one out of four ‘balseros’ did not survive, which means that about 20 thousand Cubans died. Many were never identified; their bodies were kept for years in American morgues or graves for the homeless. Millions (at least more than 2,500,000) Cubans did escape and are living in foreign countries (above all the USA) since the start of the regime.

Your father, Oswaldo Payá, was a very important person in the defending human rights in Cuba. He was a five-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, and he also received the Andrei Sájarov award. What inspires you about him and how did you see him as a child, fighting for these rights?

Well, I think most children and girls above all, connect with our parents and see them as our heroes. Honestly, mine was one. I was always impressed by his sense of responsibility. In other words, for my family and me it was logical to view my father as our protector.

The interesting and curious thing is, my father was a hero for many other Cubans. People I didn’t even know, identified him as the person who took responsibility and to whom they could turn to.

First of all, that sense of responsibility, it’s a complete commitment & freedom to live according to your conscience, and also how to help others… & feel responsible for your fellow men. All that marked a way in which I related to my father and it also made a mark on all my father’s work, who during the past 25 years of his life, strived hard, along with many other Cubans, to have those changes, we all longed for, materialize.

Today, you are a Cuban dissident that does what few others do; continue with your father’s work. I wanted to ask you, when did you stop being Oswaldo Payá’s daughter and when did you become Rosa María Payá, the dissident?

I do not think they are rivalries. I will never stop being Oswaldo Payá’s daughter and I’ll never stop being Rosa María. The step towards public confrontation of the regime came at a certain time and due to the consequence of my father’s murder..

Author: On July 22, 2012, activist Oswaldo Payá was on his way to Santiago de Cuba, accompanied by Cuban national, Harold Cepero, the Spanish national, Ángel Carromero and the Swede politician, Jens Aron Modig, when his vehicle crashed into a tree, resulting in the death of Rosa María’s father and Cepero.

Payá had been, as many others, a straightforward dissident and critic of the government. He had received continuous death threats, on that day it finally happened.

The authorities blamed Carromero for committing murder due to driving irresponsibly (he was sentenced to four years in prison). However, a subsequent legal investigation conducted by the Human Rights Foundation concluded that the car had been hit and that they had been beaten up by militaries (Modig was taken to a cell for eight days and threatened), later all the evidence had been covered up. 

The authorities blamed Carromero for committing murder due to driving irresponsibly (he was sentenced to four years in prison). However, a subsequent legal investigation conducted by the Human Rights Foundation concluded that the car had been hit and that they had been beaten up by militaries (Modig was taken to a cell for eight days and threatened), later all the evidence had been covered up. 

RMP: The Cuban generals of the dictatorship, specifically Castro, took the decision to execute my father and murder Harold Cepero, who was 32 at the time. He was the most important young leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, a movement founded by my father. 

I was already part of that movement & worked with the Cuban opposition. But with this, we found ourselves in the position of begin denouncers, not only of the absence of Cuban rights, but also of the grand injustice of the recent murder. From that point on my work became more public.

What is the current stage of the legal process of what really happened to your father? Have there been any advances in the investigation on an international level about the sentence?

The Cuban regime has done everything within its power to cover up all the evidence, & prevent experts from accessing the information. In fact, even six years after the murder, my father and Harold’s autopsy reports have still not been released.

Without the autopsy report there’s not much we can do.

The Cuban laws are fully subject to Cuban generals which violates all civil rights. We have done everything, we have gone to the Supreme Court, to the Ministry of Justice which in reality is the same thing, because in Cuba there’s no separation between the two.

However, there is a lot of information provided by witnesses, by survivors. Furthermore, the evidence that has been collected, such as the survivors’ text messages asking for help. Saying that they were surrounded by militaries, that a car had hit them, that they were rammed off the road. All of this information has been compiled into one single legal report by the Human Rights Foundation, it concluded, what happened was an attack perpetrated by National Security agents.

The case is also with the Comptroller of Extrajudicial Crimes of the United Nations and at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. We know on many occasions the Cuban regime does not respond to these systems.

Author: This interview was conducted shortly after the 60th anniversary of the day Fidel Castro’s Revolutionary Forces entered Havana, on January 8, 1959. During this entire time, the regime had managed to maintain power, barge in on the region and create a bastion of struggle, even capable of destabilizing other countries’ governments. Not only in Latin America, but also in other regions of the world like Congo, Syria, and, the most known, Angola.

You were born the year the Berlin Wall fell. Thirty years later we see the Cuban regime is still standing, changing its leader, but not really changing its face. What keeps the Cuban regime standing & free from punishment?

There are a series of factors that have contributed to the regime’s impunity and maintained the generals in power, those who have created an international mafia. It is a criminal organization that has been in power for over 60 years, that has an intelligence system trained by the KGB and the Stasi, that has been infiltrating the entire world, but above all the region.

An organization that managed to put Chávez in power in Venezuela, a backer who lost with the collapse of the USSR, who cannot sustain itself economically or in any other way than being a parasite of another economy, or of all criminal operations they are involved with. From drug trafficking to arms trafficking, like the North Korean ship with the Cuban armament found at the Panama Canal in 2015.

You specifically asked me for facts. For a long time, the international community silenced the complicity of many international actors with the 60-year-old regime, that clearly incarcerates and murders those who think differently, this is the dominant factor.
Subsequently, fear is capable of instilling itself in society. None of these totalitarian regimes have a pillar stronger than the fear they can spread in the population.

However, none are immovable, they can also be defeated and of course, for that to happen, the most important factor is mobilizing people. But we have seen these communities, the people that suffer these criminal regimes need the support of an international community.

An element that stands out in Cuba is tourism, but what is behind that tourism? It seems to be a well consolidated industry. Some people that travel there, go to travel back in time, to see some sort of show. It sounds similar to what happens when people go to North Korea. What is behind this?

It’s precisely the same. There’re many reasons to travel to Cuba, and personally, I am not the kind of people that tells foreigners not to go to my country, on the contrary. I believe in the freedom of human beings and I believe they should live every minute of it. If what they want is to travel to the island, then let them travel. 

If you want to go to Havana as a tourist, go; but do not think for a minute you are promoting democracy with that gesture. 


However, it’s like going to the zoo to see how they live, how can it be possible in a country with little to none internet connection, where the means of transportation in many places is still horse & cart, or North American cars from the 40s & 50s. Well, that in no way helps the Cuban people. If you want to go to Havana as a tourist, go; but do not think for a minute you are promoting democracy with that gesture. 

If you can go visit the Cuban dissidents, if you can go and present yourself at one of the detention centers and try to meet the political prisoners or their families, lastly, if you can go behave yourself as you would in any other country in the world. Maybe while doing that, it may be that the restrictions in Cuba will also affect you too, you may have problems with the authorities, but under no circumstance will they be remotely similar to the problems faced by the Cubans themselves.

What is behind that industry? It is a fairly lucrative industry. Do you know where that money finally goes to?

Ilustración de La Habana. “There are still many people in Latin America that live in deception and believe in Cuban propaganda.”. 

By law, no investment and no foreign investor on the island can have more than 49% of shares. If there is a hotel, in reality it belongs to the Cuban militaries, at least 51% of the shares belong to them, due to a law that governs foreign property.

That is the case with foreign investors, because Cubans do not have any legal standing. Meaning, there is no way, not even with a lot of money, a Cuban resident can have 49% of the shares of any investment in Cuba, we do not have those rights. 

That is why there are no Cuban businessmen, because we simply do not have those rights, it is not recognized by law. Cuban civilians are granted permission to have small businesses, but they always require permission, there is no recognition of economic rights. 

Cuba is a country with almost no internet access, and where information is strongly controlled. Do you think that these limitations of information and the indoctrination from a very young age has an impact on the critical reasoning of people as they grow?

Naturally it does. The lack of information limits you on your analysis of reality because you simply are unaware of that part of reality. The propaganda bombardment, as ridiculous as it may be, when it is the only thing that you are listening to, certainly has an impact on your conscience.

Now, despite that lack of information, this reality that the Cubans live in, that cannot be censored or denied access to, is a reality that hinders their progress & the fruits of their labor, it prevents them from choosing where they work, from having decent medical care, from having a good education, from entering and leaving the country. Ultimately, it is what stops the quest for happiness in whatever way they see fit.

That is the reality the Cubans live with on a daily basis. The reality is that the Cuban people want to change that failed system, no matter what the national media says. 

What is it like to be a dissident under these conditions, with these circumstances and with access to information?

This isn’t the reality anymore. More Cubans have cellphones and some have access to the internet. It cannot be compared to the access that developed societies have, but there is a percentage of the population that can connect for a few hours a week.

Having said that, the repression or at least its power has not changed, or if it has, it has strengthened. In other words, the State’s violence against those who express themselves and work towards actual changes is increasingly more evident.

For example, the Cubans that died, the ones who campaigned publicly opposing the system, to say no to a constitution that attempted to impose a regime, ended up being attacked by special forces.

We are not talking about the police; we are talking about militaries trained to beat up fellow Cubans. The reality is I do not think being a dissident is the goal of any Cuban. My goal is not to be a dissident, but to help change the regime. (…) The reality is that the majority of Cuban people, seeks real changes and there is an important part of them that is willing to take the risk of demanding and working for those changes. What should exist is an international community that can support the Cuban people.

Author: In 1964, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, before the United Nations General Assembly, gave a speech that for many set marked the tone in which the Cuban authorities saw political dissidents:It is a well-known, and we have always expressed it to the world. Executions, yes. We have executed and will keep executing as long as it is necessary. Our fight is a fight to the death (…) Under those conditions we live by the imposition of the North American imperialism. But at the same time, we do not commit murders“.

What tools does the Cuban regime have to control and repress its population, and what are the punishments if someone resists? 

Today, there are over 120 documented political prisoners. It must be said these are the cases that have been reported. There may be many more prisoners that we do not know about because the families are so afraid, they do not even report it.

The regime has all the tools for repression. Technology and internet access are very important, above all when it comes to mobilizing citizens, but it’s also like weapon in the hands of the repressers.

In Cuba there is only one telephone and internet company, and of course it is in the hands of the Cuban generals. To connect to the internet in Cuba you must buy a code (very expensive in comparison to the salary) that allows you to access the internet. To get it you must provide your identity number that is linked to a code. So, at all times they know what person is looking at, particular news, the pages the person visits, or who the person talks to. In other words, the control is practically complete, and it is impossible to escape from it because they control the media too.

My father explained it to me using a fishbowl as a metaphor. If Cubans were fish, the generals would control the water, the water is also polluted all the time, it is a place you cannot escape from. The same happens on a technological level, when we use embedded applications, we try to escape using VPN, we try to find a way with the same technology to bypass being monitored, but it is very difficult when all means are controlled by the army, by the military.

What happens to a person in Cuba that is discovered looking at information on an internet page that threatens the government?

Look, I would like to reply with a phrase written by Harold Cepero in an article we published after his murder: the people that dare to publicly dissent, in some form to collaborate with the opposition in Cuba, risk almost complete loneliness, isolation, violence, prison or death. That was what Harold was writing a week before being murdered. 

That is the reality of many Cubans, above all those who directly confront the system. If you are at university, you have to go to the May 1st parade. If you don’t, you can lose your place at university. Even though, the enforcement goes further than the person making the decision, it goes for the family too.

It is a very serious threat. In fact, many times you can be expelled from university for not signing a paper that says you are unconditionally part of the Cuban regime and that you will work wherever the regime sends you. For not signing that paper you’re at risk of being expelled.

Are there many people who prefer silence, prefer not to speak, not out of fear of what will happen to them, but for what might happen to their families?

It is a reality among many Cubans. My perception is that many, many Cubans realized that there is much more to be won than to be lost. At the end of the day, those are the Cubans that are taking the steps, directly telling the regime: we do not want you; we want democracy, we want rights.

Do you think under the current circumstances and conditions, a transition is possible in Cuba? And if not, what are we lacking so that we can achieve democracy in Cuba?

I believe that it is totally possible, I also believe that it is necessary. There is an urgency, not only due to the situation the Cuban people are living, but also for the security in the region. This regime maintains control over what is happening in Venezuela. Maintains military presence. They also sent troops to Nicaragua after it was approved by Daniel Ortega’s mandate in the parliament (National Assembly). Therefore, the Cuban problem is hemispherical. As such, it must be treated as an international problem, and conditions must be provided for a democratic change.

Resultado de imagen para miguel diaz canel raul castro
Miguel Diaz Canel with the Russian Chairman, Vladimir Putin.

Today, the regime’s legitimacy is practically nonexistent. They have imposed a government figure that nobody chose: Mr. Miguel Díaz-Canel, the Cuban people know it is an imposition. (…) Furthermore, the Sao Paulo Forum no longer dominates the regional international policy. Today, the Cubans go out to say no to the regime, it’s a fraudulent referendum. Today the right conditions exist to make a final effort, peaceful but definite. Where all the pressure (domestic and foreign) coordinates so that the regime is subjected to leave, not only Cuba, but the whole hemisphere, as the criminal force it is.

Today, the regime’s legitimacy is practically nonexistent. They have imposed a government figure that nobody chose: Mr. Miguel Díaz-Canel, the Cuban people know it is an imposition. (…) Furthermore, the Sao Paulo Forum no longer dominates the regional international policy. Today, the Cubans go out to say no to the regime, it’s a fraudulent referendum. Today the right conditions exist to make a final effort, peaceful but definite. Where all the pressure (domestic and foreign) coordinates so that the regime is subjected to leave, not only Cuba, but the whole hemisphere, as the criminal force it is.

What would you say to those people that have a fantasy image of Cuba as a role model?

There are still many people in Latin America that live in deception and believe in Cuban propaganda. 

I not only have political differences with Raúl Castro, but I have ethical differences


But here are the facts to compare, this is not a partisan political position. I not only have political differences with Raúl Castro, but I have ethical differences, & those are the differences that the Cuban people have with the generals in power, and that’s how it is, how the international community should see it, especially, those in positions of power that have an ethical responsibility to their people.

Right now, there are many points of view that are not justified by living in deception, if not they are of real complicity with the Castro regime. There are perspectives mainly from some of the organizations that belong to the Sao Paulo Forum, that align with criminals in power. Those must be reported publicly and should not guide the behavior of democratic governments. 

The region’s democratic governments should be consistent when they name their enemies. An enemy of every country in the hemisphere, because they are a regional stabilization center, they are the Cuban intelligence like the G2. Organizations l respect very much like the Lima Group have a tremendous but urgent challenge.

As long we are capable of verbalizing such measures, we begin to destroy the ghosts and get closer to the transition that Cuba and Venezuela so desperately need. 


The opinions and statements expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the team, Fundacion para el Progreso, or the organizations that cooperate with this project. The same is valid for the opinions, statements and actions of the interviewees in other moments and contexts, both in the past and in the future.