Cuban Heritage Collection critical to research on Cuban dissident

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Cuban Heritage Collection critical to research on Cuban dissident

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
Author and journalist David E. Hoffman shared his deep dive into the life of political activist Oswaldo Payá—aided by the abundance of documents in the University Libraries' collection—with Cuba expert Michael Bustamante during a recent discussion.

While doing research for his book on Cuban opposition leader Oswaldo Payá, David E. Hoffman was sifting through documents in the University of Miami Libraries' Cuban Heritage Collection one day when he suddenly hollered with glee. 

“I let out a shout which I was reprimanded for, but I was that excited,” said Hoffman, a contributing editor and member of the editorial board for The Washington Post, during a Thursday night presentation about his recent book “Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and his Daring Quest for a Free Cuba,” sponsored by the Cuban Heritage Collection (CHC). 

Hoffman realized he was holding a 90-year-old political party manifesto of what would later serve as a draft for key elements of Cuba’s 1940 constitution, one of the most progressive documents of its time because of its commitment to social, political and economic freedom. That constitution also contained a provision allowing for citizen initiatives to propose and change laws, one that would survive the Cuban Revolution and make its way into the island’s socialist constitution of 1976. It was also this provision that Payá used to create a petition calling for democratic reforms to the Cuban government in the early 2000s. 

“It was just a tremendous contribution . . . and I’m hopeful that the Cuban Heritage Collection will become an even greater center of scholarship, so that many other authors will shout in the reading room,” Hoffman joked. 

In 2012, Payá was killed in a highly suspicious car crash in Cuba, and today, most of his family members no longer live in Cuba. In his book, Hoffman wanted to investigate why Payá decided to oppose the Cuban government.

Many of the documents that Hoffman unearthed at the CHC would prove critical to his narrative about the life of Payá and the origins of the activist’s Varela Project, which was the name he gave to his citizen petition to amend the island nation’s 1976 constitution. More than 11,000 Cubans signed the petition, but when it was presented to the government in 2002, then-head of state Fidel Castro dismissed the document. Meanwhile, Payá had widely presented his idea to people as high-ranking as the Pope and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

To craft the story, Hoffman also consulted often with Cuba scholar Michael Bustamante, associate professor of history and Emilio Bacardí Moreau chair in Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University. Bustamante led the conversation on Thursday with Hoffman and asked what led him to pivot from writing about Cold War politics in his previous books, to writing about Cuba.

Hoffman and Bustamante
David E. Hoffman and Michael Bustamante

Hoffman started his career at The Washington Post in the 1980s, covering the White House during the Reagan and Bush administrations. He then spent six years as the Moscow bureau chief, writing and editing stories about the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. He also served as the newspaper’s foreign editor. 

During his time in Russia, Hoffman said he was intrigued by the success of political dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, a nuclear physicist who designed Soviet nuclear bombs and then spoke out against his own government. He also wrote a book about another Soviet opposition leader, Adolf Tolkachev, who spied on the Soviets for the United States and lost his life. 

“Sakharov saw all around him the dysfunctional Soviet communism—the repression, denial of rights, and its complete squeeze on people’s creativity. He alone didn’t see it, millions of Soviets saw it. But only one person stood up to protest it,” Hoffman said. “I saw some of the same in Oswaldo Payá. It always struck me that it took a lot of courage and exceptionalism for somebody to stand up to the system like that. I wanted to know for years how he had done it.” 

Payá was born in 1952, just 10 days before the coup d’etat that brought Fulgencio Batista to power and later fueled the Cuban Revolution, according to Hoffman. Payá grew up visiting the Catholic church often, but that religious freedom was soon forbidden by the government. His father’s business was confiscated by the government while Payáwas standing at the cash register one day, and Payá later spent three years in a forced labor camp.

Payá was also pressured to leave the University of Havana for his outspoken views. Later, he formed the Christian Liberation Movement to encourage democratic reforms in the Cuban government, and he read about the formation of the 1940 Constitution in order to craft the one-page document that would become the Varela Project petition.

“Here’s a guy who is not a philosopher. He is not drawing philosophy from books but is learning it as he walks through the streets,” Hoffman said. “He comes to a couple of really big messages and lessons, and one of them is that rights are something bestowed on us by God at birth, not by the state. So [he thought] we all have a right to rights. And for Cuba in his time, that was a very counter-revolutionary idea.” 

Hoffman visited the CHC and the Library of Congress several times with his research assistant, Mylena Vazquez. He also traveled to Cuba; Spain; and Stockholm, Sweden, to find information about Payá and to interview his friends, associates, and relatives. In particular, the CHC documents helped him learn more about the life of Gustavo Gutierrez, the author of the citizen initiative provision of the 1940 constitution. 

The pair also examined 41 boxes donated to the CHC from Cuban activist José Ignacio Rasco, who opened his Miami home to Payá in 1999, photos showed. And there was even a copy of the Varela Project petition at the CHC, Hoffman noted. 

“The Varela project was so important because what Oswaldo was doing was taking the law of the state and using it against the state,” he said. “It was actually a genius idea.”

To learn more about Payá and to get additional information on Hoffman’s book, visit the author’s website. 

The University’s Cuban Heritage Collection is the largest collection on the history of Cuba outside of the island, and it is the largest collection about the Cuban diaspora in the world. To learn about future events, visit their website.