WASHINGTON — When Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, 60, one of Cuba’s most famous — and intensely devout — Catholic activists was killed on July 22, 2012, his family, friends and human-rights advocates around the world considered the tragic death suspicious.
Now the U.S. State Department has called for an independent, international investigation into the circumstances of the accident.
Payá founded the Christian Liberation Movement (CLM) in 1988 to advocate for free speech, freedom of association, more private property rights and the right to have a voice in government decisions through elections in Cuba. The Register profiled Payá in a lengthy interview in 2010.
Calling for a national referendum on these freedoms, in an effort known as the Varela Project, in honor of a 19th-century Cuban-born priest, Father Felix Varela, the CLM gathered more than 25,000 signatures and presented them to the Cuban National Assembly in 2002 and 2003. As a result, most of the movement’s leaders were jailed in the “Black Spring” of 2003.
Many were released into exile in 2010 as a result of a deal worked out between the Church in Cuba, the Castro regime and the Spanish government.
Payá, whose high profile probably protected him from outright imprisonment — he won the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2002 from the European Parliament and was nominated by former President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia for the Nobel Peace Prize — was continuously monitored and harassed over the 10 years preceding his death.
Payá, together with a young associate, Harold Cepero Escalante, died in the back seat of a car that crashed on a deserted stretch of straight highway in Bayamo, Cuba.
Now, the car’s driver, Angel Carromero, 27, a conservative political party official from Madrid, claims the fatal crash was caused by another car, bearing official license plates, that rammed the democracy activists from behind. Further, some have questioned whether Payá died in the car accident or while under the control of state agents after the crash.
Carromero says he made false statements in Cuba while under arrest and drugged. He said then that he was at fault for losing control of the vehicle with no mention of another car. But at the time, he says, he was threatened and tortured, both in a hospital after the crash and later in jail.
A Swedish Christian Democratic youth leader, Aron Modig, 27, who was sitting next to Carromero in the passenger seat, claims he slept through the events prior to the crash and consequently remembers nothing.
Back in Spain since being released by Cuban authorities in December, Carromero explained last month to The Washington Post that the European visitors were bringing Payá to meet with CLM members who live in eastern Cuba. According to Carromero, the car he drove was followed all day, from the time they left Havana, across the island, with the tail car switching as they passed through different provinces.
A car with official blue license plates began following so closely that Carromero remembered seeing the aggressive faces of its occupants. Suddenly, a “thunderous impact” hit the activists’ car, and Carromero lost control, he recounted.
When Carromero regained consciousness, he was being put into a van alone.
“The next time I awakened, I was on a stretcher, being carried into a hospital room. The first person who talked to me was a uniformed officer of the Ministry of the Interior. I told her a car had hit our vehicle from behind, causing me to lose control,” Carromero told the Post.
“She took notes and, at the end, gave me my statement to sign. The hospital, which was civilian, had suddenly been militarized. I was surrounded by uniformed soldiers. A nurse told me they would put in an IV line to take blood and sedate me. I remember that they kept taking blood from me and changing the line all the time, which really worried me. I still have the marks from this. I passed the next few weeks half-sedated and without knowing exactly what they were putting in me,” the young man remembered.
Carromero continued, “When they questioned me about what happened, I repeated what I told the officer who originally took my statement. They got angry. They warned me that I was their enemy and that I was very young to lose my life. One of them told me that what I had told them had not happened and that I should be careful, that depending on what I said things could go very well or very badly for me.”
“Then came a gentleman who identified himself as a government expert and who gave me the official version of what had happened. If I went along with it, nothing would happen to me. At the time I was heavily drugged, and it was hard for me to understand the details of the supposed accident that they were telling me to repeat,” said Carromero. “They gave me another statement to sign — one that in no way resembled the truth. It mentioned gravel, an embankment, a tree — I did not remember any of these things.”
Months in Prison
Carromero was kept in a Cuban prison for several months, charged with “vehicular homicide.” He described conditions of his imprisonment as inhumane: “Once I left the hospital, they took me to a jail in Bayamo. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever lived through. I was held incommunicado, never seeing the light of day. We walked among cockroaches until they put me in the infirmary cell, along with another Cuban prisoner. The conditions were deplorable. A stream of water fell from the roof once a day, the toilet didn’t have a tank, and you could use it only when you had a bucket of water that you could throw afterward into the bowl. The cell was full of insects that woke me up when they fell on my body.”
He was found guilty last October and sentenced to four years in jail.
In December, the Spanish government negotiated his release, and he was repatriated to Madrid, where he is supposed to complete his Cuban sentence under a form of house arrest, wearing an electronic monitoring device.
What caused Carromero to radically revise the story he told in Cuba last summer? A recent meeting with Oswaldo Payá’s daughter in Madrid made him come clean, he says.
“The Payá family always has defended my innocence, when they are the most injured by this tragedy,” explained Carromero to The Washington Post. “That’s why, when I met Rosa Maria … I could not hide the truth anymore.”
“I am not only innocent — I am another victim, who might also be dead now,” Carromero continued. “I know that this decision could result in more brutal media attacks against me from Cuba, but I don’t deserve to be considered guilty of involuntary homicide, and, above all, I could not live, being complicit through my silence.”
A Determined Daughter
Rosa Maria Payá Acevedo was allowed to leave Cuba in mid-February to attend a human-rights event in Switzerland. She served as her father’s English translator for international visitors and journalists; she was the Payá child most active in the CLM.
In a telephone interview with the Register, Payá Acevedo described from Madrid how it felt to meet Angel Carromero in person, confirming what she and her family were convinced of, namely that Cuban state officials were behind her father’s death.
“I felt that I knew the truth from the beginning. We knew it in our hearts,” she said.
“We knew how the government had treated him [her father] for years, following and harassing him, threatening him. It had gotten much more frequent and intense over the last year.”
A Cuban police guard post was set up about 10 years ago just across the street from the family’s modest house in the Cerro neighborhood of Havana to monitor the family and its visitors around the clock. More recently, according to Payá Acevedo, security forces had become even more aggressive.
In June 2012, while her parents were driving their 1964 white VW van, given to them by an order of women religious, another car hit them and knocked the van over. Oswaldo Payá wrote to his brother in Spain, describing the “accident” as an attempt on his life.
In retrospect, Rosa Maria, her mother, Ofilia, and family members see that incident as foreshadowing Oswaldo’s death less than two months later.
Other opponents of the Cuban Communist regime have similarly been harassed while driving. An Italian film crew captured the terrifying technique while in the back of a car interviewing Laura Pollen, founder of the Ladies in White, a group of female relatives of jailed democracy activists who demand freedom for political prisoners. She too died under mysterious circumstances, of “dengue fever” in a state hospital in October 2011.
Payá Acevedo shared with the Register other evidence that the fatal July crash was provoked.
Before any official notification of the accident, the family received a call from Spain, from a CLM activist forced into exile. The activist reported that text messages had just come from Angel Carromero asking for help, because his car had been rammed by another car. Modig also sent a text message from the scene to Sweden, confirming that Carromero said another car caused them to go off the road.
“It was a hard moment, but Angel did not tell me anything I did not know,” she said about her meeting with Carromero in Madrid.
“Talking to Angel, I confirmed some facts, but we already knew most of what he said. We knew about the text messages and the placement of police cars following them on the road all the way. I learned that Angel was drugged and threatened. We suspected so,” said Payá Acevedo.
Why does she think her father was killed at this time, after a solid decade of harassment from the Cuban dictatorship?
Payá Acevedo thinks his criticism of Cuba’s recent economic reforms as being insufficient, as well as the growing popularity of Payá’s movement for change throughout the country, caused the regime to eliminate him last summer. She says there are now more than 1,000 CLM chapters.
“I think my father and our movement was threatening the government by calling reforms ‘false changes,’” said the young woman.
She continued, “It was like the government wanted to control international public opinion, and they need to sell an image of Cuba. The truth is that repression against the opposition has risen, is now more violent — people have no rights. My father and the whole opposition stood against the regime.”
Payá Acevedo held a Feb. 28 press conference in Madrid to describe the new information and demand a nonpartisan international investigation into her father’s death.
She also urged the international community to support the many other democracy activists that she said are under constant threat and unjustly jailed in Cuba today.
The U.S. State Department responded on March 28 by publicly calling for an independent, international investigation into the circumstances of Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero’s “tragic deaths.”
As well, a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators released a letter dated March 25 requesting an investigation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights into the “troubling death” of Payá.
The Cuban government has continued to maintain their initial report: that the accident was caused by reckless driving on the part of Carromero.
Yet Payá's daughter told the Register that intimidation tactics against democracy advocates have increased in the last year, especially since the pastoral visit of Pope Benedict XVI, when opposition leaders such as her father were forcibly prevented from attending the papal Mass in Havana.
For example, democracy activist Sonia Garro, 37, was arrested on March 18, 2012, along with her husband, Ramón Alejandro Muñoz. The couple was dragged from their home for being among a group of regime opponents hoping to meet with Pope Benedict.
As reported by The Wall Street Journal, the couple has never been charged, yet are imprisoned separately in miserable, maximum-security jails. Most of their possessions were taken in the raid; their child has been displaced and is living with relatives.
This week, Rosa Maria Payá Acevedo is in Washington to continue seeking support for an investigation into her father’s death, protection for her family, which has received ongoing death threats, and support for the larger community of Cuban democracy activists.
Said Payá Acevedo, “This is the face of Cuba today — no different from 53 years ago, when Fidel Castro took power, not changed by Raul Castro’s mini reforms.”
Register correspondent Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.