In October 2003, the Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya wrote a letter from Havana to his mentor Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president and one-time dissident playwright who fought to throw off communist rule. At the time, Paya’s hopes for greater freedom in Cuba were being crushed by Fidel Castro in a wide-ranging crackdown. Dozens of his friends and colleagues were being thrown in prison. “I still live in an environment formed by the culture of fear that the communist regime generates throughout society,” Paya lamented in his letter.
Nearly nine years later — on July 22, 2012 — Paya, 60, was killed in a car accident in Cuba’s eastern Granma province near the town of Bayamo, along with another activist, Harold Cepero. Both were passengers in the backseat of a rented vehicle. Paya’s family has challenged the official version of the crash: The car was speeding and skidded into a tree. Wednesday, on The Post’s OpEd page, we published answers to questions we posed to the man who was at the wheel that day, Angel Carromero, who was imprisoned and convicted of vehicular homicide in Cuba after the crash. Carromero, 27, vice general secretary of Spain’s ruling Popular Party, was released to Spain in December to serve out his term.
His words are a testament to Cuba’s enduring “culture of fear.” Carromero offers a grim, detailed account of how the car was rammed from behind by a vehicle bearing Cuban government license plates; he says this caused the fatal crash. Carromero alleges that he was then drugged and interrogated, and his life was threatened. Under duress, he appeared in a video made by Cuban authorities. “No other vehicle hit us from behind,” he said on the tape.
But the video was a sham. Carromero says he was repeating words written in a notebook by a Cuban officer for him to read and that he was forced to sign a confession that bore no resemblance to what happened.
Carromero says he had gone to Cuba on his own and was driving that day to help a human rights champion, Paya, who had won the European Union’s Sakharov Prize and was nominated by Havel for the Nobel Peace Prize. Now Paya’s family has asked Carromero to speak out.
From his youth, Paya was independent of mind and spirit. He declined to become a member of the Communist Youth League and in 1968 was alone in his class in refusing to support the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to put down the Prague Spring. That cost Paya three years in a labor camp, but he never failed to be inspired by the example of Czechs and Slovaks, as well as Poles and Hungarians, who resisted oppression.
In search of that liberation, Paya pioneered the Varela Project, a petition in 2002 seeking a national referendum to guarantee freedom of expression and association, amnesty for political prisoners and free elections. The petition drew more than 11,000 signatures and shook Castro’s regime to its core — resulting in a crackdown in which dozens of signers of the petition were sent to dungeons.
We now have an eyewitness account that strongly suggests Castro’s agents sought to kill Paya and then attempted to cover up the murder.
The only proper course of action is to convene an international investigation that can be truly independent and untainted by the Castro regime’s thuggish ways. The legacy of Paya must be to expose the truth of his death and to put that truth on display for all to see, especially the people of Cuba, for whom Paya aspired to nothing less than the right to live free from tyranny.
The Washington Post (March 6)