Republicans step up effort to re-name D.C. street after alleged pro-democracy Cuban
Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas

WASHINGTON—Since 2015, extreme-right Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has introduced multiple bills to designate the street in front of the Embassy of Cuba in Washington as “Oswaldo Payá Way,” in honor of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, an opponent of the Cuban government who died in a car crash in 2012. Payá was a conservative and religious political activist in Cuba who was supported by the Roman Catholic Church. He also enjoyed the political backing of the United States and many Western European governments.

Payá founded the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), a political party that sought to change Cuban society into a “Christian democracy.” The party’s key political initiative was the “Varela Project,” which sought “democratic” reforms within Cuba via a petition drive and referendum process in 2002. At their core, the MCL and its Varela petition project were about overturning the existing politicial, social, and economic system in Cuba.

The 2012 auto accident that killed Payá has been the subject of controversy. The official police investigation concluded that the driver of the vehicle Payá was riding in  lost control and collided with a tree. Payá’s children and one of the car’s other passengers claimed the car was deliberately run off of the road by another vehicle, which they allege was driven by an agent of the Cuban government.

In 2023, after a 10-year probe, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR)—an arm of the Organization of American States (OAS)—declared the Cuban state responsible for the murders of Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero, chairman of the MCL Youth League, who also died in the crash. The driver and two foreign politicians also riding in the car survived.

A court in Spain, however, examined the case and agreed with Cuban investigators’ conclusions. The driver of Payá’s vehicle apparently had an awful driving record and was speeding on unpaved back road undergoing maintenance.

Already a hero of the Cuban-American expat community in Florida before his death, following the car crash, Payá was made into a martyr for those opposed to the Cuban Revolution. Always eager to endear himself to a right-wing voting base, Cruz has tried hard to associated himself with Payá’s legacy.

During the 117th Congress, his D.C. street renaming proposal died in the House after passing in the Senate with four co-sponsors. Now, during the current 118th Congress, Cruz—along with a bi-partisan group of senators including Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Rick Scott, R-Fla., and Benjamin Cardin, D-Md.—re-introduced the bill. It has passed the Senate and is now headed to the House. There, it’s been designated H.R. 1239 and is sponsored by Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., Carlos A. Gimenez, R-Fla., Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., and Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Fla. All of the bill’s House sponsors are Cuban-Americans and Republicans, with the exception of Wasserman-Schultz.

The bipartisan support for the measure reflects the unity between both major political parties when it comes to questions of anti-communism, U.S. imperialist interests, and in this particular situation, D.C.’s self-autonomy. The Washington, D.C., Council recently came out in favor of ending the cruel U.S. blockade of Cuba.

Anti-Cuba and anti-D.C.

Not to be outdone by Cruz, Democratic Sen. Menendez, a Cuban American who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, uses his leadership role to advocate for the continuation of the 60-plus-year U.S. blockade on Cuba and holding Cuba policy hostage. Even though the Democratic Party controls the White House and the Senate, because of figures like Menendez teaming up with Republicans and GOP control of the House, the Dems are unable to revive the normalization of relations with Cuba that was achieved during the Obama era.

Though he regularly trashes Cuba’s revolutionary government for supposedly restricting democracy, Menendez himself is no poster boy of respect for democratic politics. He is well-known for his unethical behavior and is currently under federal criminal investigation for the second time in five years for improperly taking cash and gifts in exchange for political favors. There have recently been calls to replace Menendez as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair by peace organizations, including CODEPINK.

Designating the street in front of the Cuban Embassy “Oswaldo Payá Way” would constitute a case of congressional interference into D.C.’s affairs. It would join a list of Congress’ recent attacks on D.C.’s management of its own affairs, including the attempted repeal of laws around public safety and budget appropriations to remove traffic cameras and bike safety regulations from D.C. streets.

This isn’t the first time that Congress has tried renaming a D.C. street. Streets and roads are legally under the jurisdiction of the D.C. government, which is semi-protected by Home Rule. That hasn’t stopped Congress. Sen. Marco Rubio, in 2018, sponsored a bill to rename a street in front of the Embassy of the Russian Federation after a murdered Putin critic and former Russian politician, Boris Nemtsov. After his proposal stalled in the Senate, Rubio turned to a conservative D.C. council member who ended up helping him pass the measure with ease. This time, though, things may be different.

A group of Cuba solidarity activists, who led the passing of the recent D.C. Council resolution denouncing the U.S. blockade of Cuba and the designation of Cuba as a terrorist state, are trying to head off the street renaming effort before it can get off the ground. They are working to get the D.C. Council to introduce a bill naming the street after Cuban national hero Jose Martí, the leader who spearheaded Cuba’s anti-colonial struggle against the Spanish in the 1800s.

The political fight around the street name comes amid a number of other developments, including heightened attacks on Cuba and restrictions on Home Rule in the District of Columbia. It is thus both a #HandsOffDC and #HandsOffCuba issue that could potentially unite and expand both the movements for D.C. Statehood and Cuba solidarity.

The right keeps its sights set on Cuba

As for the ongoing crusade against Cuba, Cruz has worked closely with Payá’s daughter, Rosa María, to develop policy to maintain the sanctions against Cuba in the name of “the fight for democracy.” He also met with her in November of 2019 on the “National Victims of Communism Day,” an annual publicity stunt financed and celebrated by far-right and fascist groups in the United States and abroad.

María, who founded CUBADECIDE and the Pan-American Foundation for Democracy, is a leader in lobbying and shaping OAS and U.S. policy toward Cuba. When President Donald Trump announced his rollback of Obama’s policy toward Cuba, María was in the front row cheering. She met regularly with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in 2018 and 2020 and has also regularly appeared on stage with Governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis of Florida.

Whether on the GOP payroll or not, Payá’s daughter appears to be functioning as a Republican operative working to stall U.S.-Cuba normalization and to create pretexts to justify the continuation of old Cold War policies against Cuba. In the U.S. Senate and House, she has plenty of friends to help do just that.

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Dante O’Hara
Dante O’Hara

Dante O’Hara is a researcher in the physical sciences in Washington, D.C. He graduated from UC Riverside with a Ph. D. O’Hara is an organizer, a member of the National Society of Black Physicists, and an avid reader of Black liberation and the labor movement’s militant history in the U.S. and internationally.