Monday, July 23, 2012

Cuban dissident dies in car crash

Cuban dissident dies in car crash

Veteran activist Oswaldo Payá is killed after rental car hits tree close
to Bayamo, 500 miles east of Havana
Associated Press in Havana, Monday 23 July 2012 07.38 BST

The Cuban activist Oswaldo Payá, who spent decades speaking out against
the communist government of Fidel and Raúl Castro, has died in a car
crash. He was 60.

Payá and a Cuban man described by media as a fellow activist, Harold
Cepero Escalante, died in a one-car crash in La Gavina, just outside the
eastern city of Bayamo, Cuban authorities said. A Spaniard and a Swede
also riding in the car were injured.

Witnesses said the driver of the rental car lost control and struck a
tree, according to Cuba's International Press Centre. Police are

"This Sunday has been a day of mourning. A terrible tragedy for his
family and a loss for the opposition movement," said Elizardo Sánchez, a
human rights advocate and de facto spokesperson for Cuba's small
opposition. "He was a prominent leader. He dedicated years of his life
to fighting for democracy."

Payá's home is in Havana and it was not immediately clear why he was
near Bayamo, 500 miles east of the capital.

He is the second leading Cuban dissident to die in the past year, after
Laura Pollan, co-founder of the protest group Ladies in White, died of
heart failure in October.

Payá, who drew strength from his Roman Catholic roots as he pressed for
change in his homeland, continued to voice his opposition after Fidel
resigned because of illness in early 2008. He called the passing of the
presidency to younger brother Raúl a disappointment.

"The driving force of society should be the sovereignty of the people,
not the Communist party," Payá wrote after the new parliament chose Raúl
as head of state and government. "The people of Cuba want changes that
signify liberty, open expression of their civil, political, economic and
social rights."

Payá, an electrical engineer, gained international fame as the top
organiser of the Varela Project, a signature-gathering drive asking
authorities for a referendum on laws to guarantee civil rights such as
freedom of speech and assembly.

Shortly before the former US president Jimmy Carter's visit to Cuba in
May 2002, Payá delivered 11,020 signatures to the island's parliament.
He later delivered a second batch of petitions containing more than
14,000 signatures to the National Assembly, Cuba's parliament, posing a
renewed challenge to the island's socialist system.

The Varela Project was seen as the biggest non-violent campaign to
change the system the elder Castro established after the 1959 Cuban

The government set aside the first batch of signatures and launched its
own, successful petition drive to enshrine the island's socialist system
as "irrevocable" in the Cuban constitution.

Payá continued his efforts, saying it was more important to mobilise
Cubans to demand human rights than to win government acceptance of the
project. However, his influence waned notably in his final years as
younger activists and bloggers such as Yoani Sánchez gained
international headlines.

Payá and other long-time opposition figures were described disparagingly
in leaked, confidential US diplomatic cables as old, riven by petty
rivalries and out of touch with the island's youth. "They have little
contact with younger Cubans and, to the extent they have a message that
is getting out, it does not appeal to that segment of society," said one
cable from 2009, which was made available by WikiLeaks the following year.

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