Payá’s death: An accident, or state-sponsored murder?
It was an unforgettably hot afternoon in April 2003 when I went searching for Oswaldo Payá’s house. It wasn’t hard to find. Located along Calle Peñón in Havana’s crumbling Cerro district, it was the one under constant surveillance by the not-so-subtle secret police stationed just across the street.
The agents — watching from park benches, pay phones and parked cars — took note of everyone entering or leaving the Payá residence. Less obvious were the video cameras monitoring the area 24 hours a day, looking for anything suspicious.
“I can’t say that I sleep in peace,” the famous dissident told me as we sat on the front porch, sipping lemonade. At least twice in the months before our meeting, death threats had been scrawled on his front door. “Sometimes I ride my bicycle to work, and state security follows me with microphones to harass me. They can detain me at any moment.”
In fact, a few minutes after leaving the house, I realized my Hyundai rental car was being followed by state security. I felt like I was in a B-grade spy movie from the 1960s. It took a good 20 minutes of maneuvers in the unfamiliar streets of Cerro to lose whoever was on my tail.
So when news broke July 22 of Payá’s death on a lonely highway between Las Tunas and Bayamo, some 800 kms east of Havana, it was with deep sadness — and anger — that I recalled our pleasant meeting nine years ago. And I wondered: was this really an accident?
The Cuban government insists it was, and there seems to be plenty of evidence to back up its claim. Three witnesses, including a bicyclist and a tractor driver going in the opposite direction, said they saw the Hyundai Accent carrying Payá and his friends lose control and crash into a tree.
Who's Telling The Truth?
Yet many Cubans, both on the island and abroad, are deeply skeptical.
They point out that Payá had been threatened in the past, and that last October, Laura Pollan — founder of the Ladies in White, which advocates the release of political prisoners — died in a Cuban hospital after a sudden respiratory illness. In both cases, the families suggested the possibility of foul play, though they presented no hard evidence.
Angel Carromero, the 27-year-old Spaniard behind the wheel, “has been accused of the charge of homicide while driving a vehicle on public roads,” reported the Communist Party newspaper Granma. Under Cuba’s penal code, anyone convicted of violating traffic laws or rules resulting in the death of another can face a jail sentence of up to 10 years.
Carromero has testified that he lost control of the car when it suddenly entered an unpaved area of road under construction. He slammed on the brakes, causing it to skid and crash into a tree by the roadside.
An official inquiry by the Cuban government found that Carromero had been traveling at 120 km/h (74 mph) and failed to heed traffic signs warning of the construction ahead. The chief investigator, Capt. Jorge Fonseca Mendoza, concluded that Carromero hit the brakes 250 feet after his car went on the dirt and then slid for another 200 feet, “which confirms the extreme speed.”
Granma said Carromero and Swedish citizen Jens Aron Modig — who had also been riding in the car — entered Cuba July 19 on tourist visas and, “in violation of their migratory status, got involved in clearly political activities contrary to the constitutional order.”
Both men are tied to conservative political parties back in Europe that have actively opposed the Castro regime. They admit having brought €4,000 ($4,900) for Payá’s Christian Liberation Movement. They also deny claims by Payá’s family that they were driven off the road by another vehicle.
“No other vehicle hit us from behind,” Carromero said in a videotaped statement to authorities. “Simply, I was driving, saw a pothole and took the precaution of any driver, which is to brake lightly. The car lost control.”
The crash killed Payá, 60, along with fellow dissident Harold Cepero, 31. Payá’s widow, Ofelia Acevedo, told Miami’s Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald she would keep pushing to meet with the Europeans in person to hear their version of the crash, because she doesn’t trust the Castro regime’s story about her husband’s death.
Neither do most Cuban exiles in South Florida. Their immediate reaction was to accuse the Cuban government of having murdered him. They say a truck rammed Payá’s car in an “extrajudicial execution” and hold the regime directly responsible for his death.
Elizardo Sánchez, a well-known human rights activist based in Havana, isn’t buying the official version either.
“We will not know all the truth until the survivors can offer their own testimonies, in their own countries and without the pressure of the Cuban government,” he said in a statement.
It is significant that neither the Spanish nor Swedish governments have accused Havana of any wrongdoing; both have expressed their gratitude for the courtesies extended to their respective citizens while being investigated.
Due to Payá’s close ties with elements of the Cuban Catholic Church, his funeral was presided over by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana. Various dissident groups — including some who had criticized Payá’s Varela Project in the past — tried to stage a demonstration during his funeral procession; some 40 or 50 of them were briefly detained.
Notably, church officials didn’t support either the so-called “execution theory” or the demonstration by frustrated dissidents.
In his sermon at Havana’s Cementerio de Colón, Ortega said Payá never strayed from his religion for the sake of his “obvious political vocation,” and that he supported the difficult task of being “a lay Christian with a political position completely faithful to his ideas without ever being unfaithful to the church.”
The day after Payá’s death, Joaquín Roy, highly respected director of the University of Miami’s European Union Center, wrote a long analysis in Madrid’s El País newspaper in which he concludes that the execution theory “does not hold from a logical point of view.”
Indeed, such an execution would constitute sheer stupidity on the part of the Cuban regime, said Roy. “There would be only one victim — in addition to Payá and his colleague — and that victim would be none other than Raúl Castro himself,” he said.
Payá’s Legacy: The Varela Project
Despite all his activities, Payá had never been arrested. His well-known Varela Project, which earned him the EU’s Sakharov Award in 2002, sought to force Cuba’s National Assembly to consider laws guaranteeing freedom of speech and other civil rights.
But even after Payá managed to collect nearly 25,000 signatures, the National Assem-bly rejected his petition on the grounds that it sought to do away with Cuba’s constitution as a whole, which it deemed unacceptable.
Without a doubt, Payá’s views and tactics were guided by a sense of moderation. He failed in his efforts — in alliance with figures such as Dagoberto Valdés, former editor of the Catholic journal Vitral — to transform the church into a force against the Castro regime.
Payá’s struggle to gain recognition and support from the Vatican also failed; both John Paul II and Benedict XVI refused to meet him during their respective visits to Cuba.
Nor could he stop James Cason, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, from infiltrating and recruiting dozens of his followers — many of whom were finally arrested in a government crackdown in 2003 that sent 75 dissidents to prison.
Amid criticism that Payá had become irrelevant in recent years, his death nonetheless has triggered an outpouring of sympathy both from within Cuba and overseas.
“Cuba has suffered a dramatic loss in its present, and an irreplaceable absence in its future,” wrote prominent dissident Yoani Sánchez wrote on her Generation Y blog. “The great lesson that [Payá] leaves us is equanimity, pacifism, ethics above differences, and the conviction that with civic action and legality, an inclusive Cuba is within our reach.”
Political analyst Domingo Amuchastegui contributed to this article.
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