Documentary features unlikely friendship between dissidents

Source: FIU News / / By Amy Ellis /

The island nation of Cuba may seem a world away from the Czech Republic. But the two nations share a long history of democratic opposition to Communist regimes.

Rosa Payá, daughter of Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, peruses a biography of Vaclav Havel during the filming of a documentary on the friendship between her father and Havel.

That shared history laid the foundation for a somewhat unlikely friendship between former Czech president and political dissident Václav Havel and Oswaldo Payá, a leading Cuban dissident and founder of the pro-democracy movement, the Varela Project.

To explore that friendship – and the parallels between the two countries’ struggles for freedom and democracy – FIU’s Václav Havel Program for Human Rights & Diplomacy has created a short film, An Unfinished Dialogue between Václav Havel and Oswaldo Payá.

Written and produced by Martin Palouš, director of the Havel program and former ambassador for the Czech Republic to the United Nations, the film was screened for the first time at a conference in Prague.

It makes its Miami debut today during an event commemorating Human Rights Day at the Coral Gables Museum.

“The goal of this project is to bring attention to this unique relationship and build a bridge between the past and the future,’’ said Palouš. “Their story continues today.”

Until their deaths – just a few months apart in 2012 – Havel and Payá exchanged long letters, phone calls and even videos, meeting just once when Payá traveled to Prague to receive the European Parliament’s Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Payá, one of Cuba’s most outspoken and prominent dissidents, was killed in an automobile accident in Cuba. The circumstances surrounding his death have been the source of considerable speculation and controversy.

While the Cuban government maintains that Payá lost control of his car, opposition groups in Cuba have said the car was forced off the road.

In the film, Payá’s daughter Rosa says her father “gave his life for the cause,” echoing a common belief among many Cubans that Payá was murdered.

In their exchange of letters, Payá  and Havel discussed the many lessons that the Czech experience offers to Cubans who aspire to see in Cuba a nonviolent end to the tyrannical communist regime and then a transition to democracy.

Filmed partly in Prague with additional footage from Havana, the film shows Rosa Payá visiting Havel’s summer home and placing a photo of her father on Havel’s grave. She said she hopes to continue her father’s legacy through her own prodemocracy effort, CubaDecide.

“My father was a great admirer of Havel,’’ she said in the film. “Their fates were intertwined and they maintained a substantive dialogue.”

Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the film includes archival material of Havel and Payá, as well as interviews with world renowned Cuban jazz musician Arturo Sandoval and Cuban dissident musicians who traveled to Prague for Trutnov, a music festival that honors Havel.

The film was produced in collaboration with the Vaclav Havel Library in Prague and the International Platform for Human Rights in Cuba.

Rosa Payá said she hopes the film – and the ongoing work of activists in Cuba – will lead to more international support for the resistance movement.

Palouš hopes it will inspire the next generation of Cuban activists.

“I believe there is a power in art to shake people up and out from their apathy,” he said. “We want to mobilize the international community, especially among young people, around the Cuban cause for freedom.”

An Unfinished Dialogue Between Oswaldo Payá and Václav Havel will be shown Dec. 8 as part of the Commemorating Human Rights Day event, which begins at 6 p.m. at the Coral Gables Museum. For information on the event, click here.