Four years after Payá’s death in a mysterious car accident, his family is still searching for the truth.
Today marks the fourth anniversary of the death of Cuban pro-democracy dissident Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas. Despite the Castro regime’s perpetual smear campaign against him — the government has labeled him a “worm” and a “mercenary” — Payá is internationally recognized as the most prominent Cuban activist of the last 25 years in the Communist island.
In 1988, Payá founded a political movement to promote democratic transition in Cuba. The most prominent effort was the Varela Project, a draft law that — through the collection of more than 11,000 signatures and in observance of requirements set by the Cuban constitution — proposed a referendum that would allow Cubans to decide on legal reforms that would enable the respect of individual rights.
Castro’s regime didn’t take Payá’s work lightly, and it vilified the Varela Project as a CIA-funded, imperialist attempt to undermine Cuba’s constitution. As a result, almost everyone involved with the project was sent to jail and Cuba’s national assembly swiftly approved a set of constitutional reforms affirming the island’s “irrevocable” commitment to the Communist system. Despite this setback, Payá continued struggling for democratic change.
Exactly four years ago, on July 22, 2012, Oswaldo Payá was traveling by car from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. Cuban pro-democracy activist Harold Cepero, Spanish youth-party leader Ángel Carromero, and Swedish politician Jens Aron Modig were traveling with him. According to the Cuban government, Carromero lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a tree on the side of a highway in the province of Granma. The government claims that Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero died in the crash.
Almost immediately after the events, the Payá family contradicted the government’s version. They stated that a second vehicle was involved. A text message sent by Jens Modig to his friends in Sweden said that a car pushed them off the road. This was confirmed by Carromero, the driver of the car who, once out of Cuba, declared that officers from the Ministry of the Interior had forced him to change his statement of facts. Originally, Carromero had stated to an officer that they were being followed by a vehicle en route to Santiago de Cuba, which later rammed them and pushed them off the road. Carromero had been forced to record a self-incriminating video that was broadcast by state-owned media.
To date, the Cuban authorities have not communicated the autopsy’s results to the Payá family. The only document given to them by the authorities was a handwritten piece of paper, issued by Havana’s medical examiner’s office, stating Oswaldo Payá’s cause of death as “damage to the nervous system.” Also, inexplicably, the authorities washed and packed the outfit worn by Payá on the day he passed away before returning it to his family, “as if they had taken them to the cleaners,” his daughter said.
The facts behind Oswaldo Payá’s death remain uncertain and are actively obscured by the authorities. The best available evidence strongly suggests direct government responsibility for Payá’s death. Meanwhile, the Payá family still demands a proper investigation.
The reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, along with gradual economic reforms being implemented domestically, might bring improvements to the material living conditions of the average Cuban. (The economic reforms are ironic, given that the same set of constitutional reforms approved by Castro as a reaction to Payá establish that “Cuba will never return to capitalism.”) Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that political reforms are not a topic at the Castro negotiation table. Today, Cubans who demand political reforms are faced with the same obstacles encountered by Oswaldo Payá throughout his life: smear campaigns, harassment, imprisonment, and death threats. Despite the propaganda, little has changed in Castro’s Cuba after 57 years.
While many of us are lucky enough to live and labor in democracies (however imperfect) and learn about independence movements and revolutionary leaders through history books, there are still millions of people who live under the boot and whim of an autocrat like Castro. In those places, remarkable and frequently unsung individuals such as Payá still risk their lives to achieve liberty and democracy. Sadly, their moral stance can bring the vilest of punishments.
Today, four years after his untimely death, we remember and celebrate the life of Oswaldo Payá and many others like him who have made the ultimate sacrifice in their fight for freedom.
— Thor Halvorssen is the president of the New York–based Human Rights Foundation. Roberto González is the international legal associate at the Human Rights Foundation.