Panama's security forces had been on the lookout for Rosa María Payá.
One of Cuba's most well-known dissidents, Payá traveled to last month's Summit of the Americas, where President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met – marking the first meeting between U.S. and Cuban leaders in more than 50 years. She was there to promote Cuba Decide, a citizen initiative that would let Cubans vote on what reforms they would like in the island nation through a plebiscite.
But on her arrival at the airport, she was met at the door of the airplane by Panamanian security officials and taken into custody and searched.
"You're going to be deported to Cuba if you cause trouble or start carrying a banner," an agent told her. "Go back to your country to cause trouble."
"Vas a ser deportada a Cuba si causas cualquier disturbio, llevas una pancarta... Vayan a su país causar disturbios" Me amenaza el agente
— Rosa María Payá A. (@RosaMariaPaya) April 5, 2015
Payá was released hours later after being searched, and the Panamanian government later called her detention a "bureaucratic mistake." But the episode and the ensuing news coverage highlighted what a high-profile figure Payá has become. In February, Payá was Sen. Marco Rubio's guest at President Obama's State of the Union address–a move intended to emphasize the Florida Republican's dissatisfaction with the White House's overtures to the Castro regime.
Payá's influence stems in part from her biography: she's the daughter of Oswaldo Payá, a well-known Cuban dissident and founder of the country's Christian Liberation Movement. Sardinas died in 2012 in the eastern Cuban province of Granma in a mysterious car crash. The Cuban government has said the crash was an accident. Paya, who now lives in Florida, says the car was rammed by another vehicle and forced off the road. She says the Cuban security services are responsible for his death.
Global Journalist's Phoebe Seston recently interviewed Payá by phone and e-mail about the government's efforts to silence her and the challenges of building a democracy movement in one of the world's last Communist states.
Global Journalist: What problems did you face when you lived in Cuba?
Payá: My family and I have faced our whole lives the lack of human rights and self-determination that all Cubans face... with the consequent economic damage.
I say that, because the extension and generalization of poverty has also been the symbol of the so-called Cuban Revolution. In addition [we] have faced the repression of the Cuban state security, who threatened to kill my father for years and ended his life.
The members of the state security of the Cuban government visited [me and my brothers'] school, to intimidate our teacher and our friends, to isolate us. [They] put microphones in our house and physically persecuted my brothers in the city, especially after the death of my father. They even called us to say "I'm going to kill you." They have tried to defame us by publishing threats and lies on Cuban National TV and abroad on the Internet.
GJ: Why is this fight so important to you?
Payá: It is very important for me to continue the fight of my father, because the legacy that he left is a path that we the Cubans could use to start a real transition process..a transition that has to be peaceful and just.
GJ: What are you doing at the moment to accomplish this transition?
Payá: From the opposition and independent civil society organizations [there are] many efforts to promote human rights in Cuba. We are promoting a citizen initiative called Cuba Decide that offers..Cubans [the] right to decide their own future. Cubans have not participated in free elections and multiparty [elections for more than] 60 years. That's why Cuba Decide [is] promoting a free plebiscite to ask people if they want to participate in free and multiparty elections.
GJ: What do you think about the recent improvements of ties between Cuba and the United States?
Payá: I think that it is good to an extent. The inclusion is good for my country, but the thing is the Cuban [people] are not the Cuban government and so far the engagement has been only with the Cuban government.
The conditions that are being discussed are the conditions that the Cuban government has proposed, not the demands of the Cuban people. So far, the steps from the United States have been just to fulfill the conditions of the Cuban government and we haven’t seen clear support of the demands of the Cuban people.
GJ: How will closer ties with the U.S. really help Cuba?
Payá: It’s not going to make a democracy in my island. Of course, I am happy that people from everywhere, not just the United States, are visiting my country. But the reality is that tourism is not a culture of change in any totalitarian dictatorship. The international community doesn’t have to be the one that actually changes my country....the question is, is the international community ready to support the right of Cuban people to decide? That could be the next step of the approach. That would be a step that actually supports the rights of the Cuban people.