“The Power of Will”: A Cuban Dissident’s Fight for Freedom

Interviewed by David Naftulin.

I sat down with Geneva Summit speaker Rosa María Payá (GS’16), one of Cuba’s most renowned human rights activists. Payá coordinates Cuba Decide, the country’s leading citizen initiative demanding a return to democracy on the island. Rosa is the daughter of accomplished activist Oswaldo Payá, who founded the powerful pro-democracy Christian Liberation Movement. Following her father’s assassination in 2012, Rosa was forced to leave Cuba, now primarily fighting for democracy and human rights from the United States.

In light of Cuba’s largest anti-regime protests in decades, Payá is playing a leading role, testifying to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, meeting with top appointees in the Biden Administration, and speaking with dozens of the world’s most influential media outlets.


You grew up in a political household, as the daughter of renowned activist Oswaldo Payá. Oswaldo was the head of the Christian Liberation Movement, one of the most influential anti-Castro forces within Cuban society. As a child in an activist family living in Cuba, were you aware of what was going on around you? Were there any formative experiences in your childhood that shaped your understanding of the regime you lived under?

 I was born in a family of dissidents, so I have no memories of thinking otherwise. We as a family were always, somehow, living in the tension of speaking our minds. As children—and I have two brothers—we always saw the work of our parents as something admirable and heroic. They were defending the truth. They were defending our neighbors and our rights. As a child, we didn’t properly understand the dimension of the risk, but we knew that the work of our parents and all our friends that we saw at the house was something that everybody wanted to succeed on the island.

It was, of course, difficult in the sense that I had teachers that were visited by the state security, I had friends that were visited by the state security, to prevent them from being with us. The same thing happened with our social networks, with any of the activities that we decided to do in life in Cuba. But at the same time, most of our friends acted not only with sympathy but also with a strange feeling that we were able to say whatever we wanted, even if we were assuming the consequences. And that was a reality that they wanted for their lives, too.

So I guess it was sort of always around you. Surely, there isn’t a way to shield a child from something so significant.

Yes, and I do remember my childhood as a happy time. But, because our family did everything in their power to keep it that way—even when my father was detained, even when sometimes my friends’ parents and my teachers were threatened by the state security to pressure us, even when we were growing up in the 1990s in Cuba when food was very scarce and there were periods of the week in which you didn’t have electricity—even in that environment, my family did everything in their power to try to keep us as happy as they could.

In that regard they did succeed, but it was a very hard time in Cuba, especially for those who were expressing themselves as free persons.

Right, and that would show the urgency of the situation for everyone, not just for the activists. And with that, I would like to bridge this to something else in your life. Unfortunately, your father’s work placed your family under a state of constant danger from the Cuban regime. How did this influence your path to advocacy, and when was the moment you realized that you needed to get involved? 

Somehow, I always felt like a dissident, even as a child. Of course, I probably didn’t understand what that meant at the time. But that was the natural thing to do—to oppose someone that oppressed the people, to oppose the dictatorship, to oppose the rule of the Communist Party.

 And then, when I started to have real conversations as a young girl and then in university, and I was surrounded by people who thought like me and wanted to do things to change the reality in Cuba, I officially joined the movement that my father was leading, the Christian Liberation Movement. And I did that with a lot of young people in my generation. It was time to change things, to transform the reality that was too oppressive to be okay with.

So, I joined the movement and I was working very closely with Harold Cepero, a leader of the movement. He was a dear friend, but he was killed together with my father nine years ago.

I am very sorry that this happened, and it sounds like you were on a path to advocacy anyway, but I am sure that was a glaring example of how awful the regime was and affirmed everything that you were fighting for.

As young people at the university in Havana, we were involved in these activities and we wanted to be even more involved. But the repression came too soon, and at the moment that the regime killed my father and Harold, the necessity to stand up and demand justice and to show the world what awful things the dictatorship had just done—and that could be repeated at any moment—was just too strong. So, we did it. But that was also a decision that we made.

To a point, then, it felt almost as an obligation because it was critical to your life and those around you. Is that a fair assessment?

It was—and it is—what I wanted to do, first because it is correct, and second because it is needed. We as a nation and as a people have an opportunity to succeed. We have an opportunity to change things, and we have to take it. 

I wanted to ask about something that you just touched on, which was your life in the years after the tragic passing of your father.

Since 2012, you have been forced to live primarily in Florida, although you have returned to Cuba on several occasions. Have you been able to return to Cuba safely? And do you face threats while living in the United States?

Cuba is not safe for anyone, and especially for dissidents or for people who speak their minds. But Cuba is my country. I will return, and I will return again. Of course, there is a dictatorship there. And for now, the dictatorship has the power to stop us from entering our own country. I don’t know what is going to happen the next time I step down in Havana Airport. I don’t know what will happen, because the regime has already opened a criminal case against me as they have done to many of my friends.

I try to live my life under my own decisions and not under the will of a dictatorship.

They have the weapons, they have the power of force, and they are using it. But we have the power of our will, and we are also using it.

That level of perversity and repression that the regime exercises does not stop on the borders of the island. They have a very powerful intelligence service that has infiltrated the entire hemisphere and even the entire planet. I have received threats here in the United States. I have been detained in airports in Latin America as a consequence of the actions of the state security either because they have personnel in many countries or because they have influence and can manipulate the systems. I have been detained in Panama, Peru, the Dominican Republic and in Mexico.

I know that these are messages from the Cuban state security, but it’s also a message for Latin America. How is it that a dictatorship in the island of Cuba has the power to do this in other countries that are democracies? That is an alarm for the governments and the peoples of the Americas. This is the reason why, when we ask for solidarity with the Cuban people, we are asking for these governments and our brothers and sisters in Latin America to take action in their own defense and in defense of their sovereignty.

Thank you for sharing, and it is true that whether it be in international institutions or on-the-ground in various countries, Cuba does have an outsized influence.

With that, I would like to shift the conversation a bit. In 2015, you launched the Cuba Decide citizen initiative in order to demand fundamental reforms in Cuba, ranging from addressing hunger to democratizing institutions. What led you to create Cuba Decide? What was the public response to your demands?

Cuba Decide is the logical continuation of my father’s work, and beyond that, to the desires of the tens of thousands of Cubans who were supporting the Varela Project. This was the project led by my father and many others, which tried to use the rules of the system to change the system and the law to guarantee human rights.

But it was also an ask for a national referendum. The Cuban regime violated their own laws to prevent that referendum from happening.

So my father said: “You are violating your own laws and you are violating common sense because what we are asking for is basic human rights. And of course, you are violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The only thing that you haven’t done is ask the people what they want.”

For more than 70 years, Cuba has not had free or fair or multi-party elections. Nobody in Cuba has ever chosen the Cuban Communist Party or any of the Castros to be the rulers of the system. So Cuba Decide is here to suggest—let’s go to a plebiscite and ask the people if they would prefer multi-party elections. That is the idea that Cuba Decide kept to transform into the large movement that it is today, demanding a change in the system through the participation of the Cuban people. It is putting the people where the people should be—which is in the center—and returning the power of decisions to the Cuban people. And with that, we wish to provoke and initiate the transformation process that we are demanding and that thousands and millions of Cubans are demanding in the streets right now. 

If it had gone to a plebiscite, do you think that it would have been competitive and that the people of Cuba are being silenced?

The answer is in the streets right now. The people of Cuba are in the streets and demanding freedom. And they are not doing it in a secret ballot, but publicly in the streets at the highest possible cost, which is life. That’s the price that the dictatorship is imposing on the freedom of the Cuban people, and the Cuban people are paying that price because they understand that we want an end to the dictatorship.

The plebiscite is just a democratic tool to make that transition that we as Cubans are demanding and organizing to legitimize their voices. But the real goal and the single goal of Cuba Decide is to change the system towards democracy through the strategy of citizen mobilization and the mobilization of the international community.

This touches well onto the next question, which is about the ongoing Cuban protests. There have been significant protests all over Cuba for the last few weeks. For some watching from the outside, the protests seem to have been quite sudden. We know, however, that the underlying causes of these protests have been simmering for many years. In response, the government clampdown against protesters has been swift and severe. Why do you think these protests are happening now, and are you hopeful that these protests can succeed?

We are on the verge of change. This is the end of the dictatorship approaching.

By saying so, I am not trying to be triumphalist. It is awful what is happening on the island right now. The repression has been brutal. The dictatorship has started a brutalization of the people at all levels. As we are talking right now, there are young people being tortured. The goal of the torture is not to obtain information, but to break the souls of brave young people. They are beating them to the point in which they demand that young people scream, “Viva Díaz Canel!” 

This is the kind of perversity that is taking place right now. There are thousands of Cubans who have been detained, many of whom have disappeared. We have at least 750 names right now, and that is only what we know of.

The level of repression that the dictatorship has displayed to try to stop people from demanding their legitimate rights—freedom—is just dramatic at this moment. 

But even after using all of that power and evil, they have not been able to obtain the result that they expected. People are still trying to change the system in Cuba.

The Cuban people live inside and outside the island. The portion of Cubans outside of the island have been as active as the Cubans that live inside the regime. The chants are in Madrid, Miami, Brussels, New York, Latin America.

If Cuba is in the streets, we must be in the streets too. And that is a movement that is not going to stop.

That is a movement that also requires the support of the international community. It requires action. Because those monsters are using weapons against unarmed and peaceful protesters. We need international action to rise the cost of that repression, to sanction, to punish and to hold some accountability on the repressors of the Cuban people. We must directly support the demand for freedom of the people in the streets. They must denounce the legitimacy of the regime, and support the Cuban people in our quest to restore our sovereignty.

The level of organization has been remarkable. Even in Geneva, the protests have been noticeable when I simply walk outside. I wanted to ask you about some of this international action that we have been referring to. In the last few weeks, you have been lobbying top officials in the U.S. Administration and in Congress. Just last week, you gave insightful testimony to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. Concretely, in your view, what should the U.S. government be doing? And do you believe the U.S. government is open to meeting your demands, or do you feel that they need to be doing a lot more?

I think they need to do a lot more, and a lot more quickly.

I do think they have the intention of doing it. But it has been two weeks already, and the actions are not there yet. They are not at the intensity that the circumstances require. This is not just a call for the American Administration, but for the entire universal system and for the democracies of the world. It is especially a call for the governments of the Americas and the European Union. There are immediate steps that all democracies should be taking.

First, the Cuban dictatorship lost the last ounce of legitimacy on July 11th, when they decided to shoot live bullets against a peaceful and unarmed mass of protesters who were just demanding freedom. That announcement of the illegitimacy of the Cuban regime should be the announcement of the USA, the EU, the OAS, international bodies and governments. These bodies have the capacity to raise the cost of repression for the repressors of the Cuban people.

The European Union just approved last December a global mechanism for sanctions against individuals who are involved in serious abuses of human rights. They have a list of abusers that are right now abusing the Cuban people with impunity. The European Union should impose those sanctions right now.

The OAS has the tools of the inter-American system to sanction the repression and to apply some principles against the Cuban repressors beyond the human rights of the Cuban people. Those principles—the Global Sullivan Principles used to end apartheid in South Africa—should be used right now and right here to save lives in Cuba.

The US has the capacity to provide internet access to the Cuban people by bypassing the Cuban regime. That is much-needed right now, because when the protests started, the Cuban regime shut down the internet and most of the communications that connect people.

These actions can save lives right now, and the international community can do these things right now. There is no reason to wait. And all of those steps should be supported by the demands of the Cuban people. That is why it is so important that the international democracies denounce the legitimacy of the regime and start to take actions to restore the sovereignty of the Cuban people.

Those sound like specific steps, and I certainly hope that these actions can be taken quickly. On another specific level, I wanted to ask you about an interaction you had with Representative Vargas in the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee surrounding the embargo against Cuba. Do you believe that this is something that needs to be expanded upon, or should the focus be more on sanctioning individuals and raising the cost of repression in other ways?

I think that raising the cost of repression is an urgency. People are being tortured right now.

Any sort of concession to the Cuban regime right now is funding the police and the military that is exercising these acts of repression. The world should move towards cutting the funds of the Cuban regime and supporting directly—without interference—the Cuban people that need support and need help.

The Cuban people were very clear in the streets of Cuba. They are demanding freedom and the end of the dictatorship. No one is shouting for the end of the embargo. They are shouting for the end of the dictatorship. That’s what the focus should be right now.

I wanted to get your opinion on a view that exists in my generation in particular, that I see on social media, of people who seem to argue that a lot of Cuba’s problems are a result of the embargo. How do you address that and how can we respond?

I think that the best answer would be the answer given by the Cuban people in the streets.

They know what the root of the problems are in Cuba, and that root is the dictatorship.

The only thing that the Cuban people want—who have no food, no medicine, and no possibility to get it—is what they know that they need, which is freedom.

And I would like to close with a question about how we can help from abroad. I am not Cuban, but there are millions of people like me who are trying to support the people of Cuba. How can we best do so?

Thank you so much for that question.

Please raise awareness. Please help us elevate the demands and the voices of the Cuban people. They are raising their voice to demand freedom, and everyone in the world should be an amplifier of those demands through social media but also demanding from your representative to take action to raise the cost of the repression, to take action to support the demand of the Cuban people for freedom, to take action together with the Cuban people to achieve what could be the most important victory of democracy in the first half of the 21st century which is the freedom of Cuba.

With the freedom of Cuba comes the democratic stability of the whole hemisphere.