Monday, July 23, 2012

Cuban Opposition Leader Oswaldo Payá Dies in Car Crash

Cuban Opposition Leader Oswaldo Payá Dies in Car Crash / Yoani Sánchez
Oswaldo Payá, Translator: Unstated, Yoani Sánchez

At five in the afternoon on July 22, the death of opposition leader and
founder of the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) Oswaldo Payá was
confirmed. The news started as a rumor that spread during the early
hours of Sunday afternoon.

Known nationally and internationally for organizing and carrying out the
Varela Project, his death at the age of 60 is a hard blow to the
pro-democracy forces in Cuba. Social networks quickly did their utmost
to spread the news and the hashtag #OswaldoPaya trended globally. The
renowned dissident lost his life in a car accident — the facts of which
are still unclear — which occurred around 1:50 pm local time.

The incident took place a few miles from the city of Bayamo in the
eastern province of Granma, which is about 500 miles from Havana. Near
the small town of La Gabina the car left the road and rolled until it
hit a tree. It remains to be confirmed if, before the impact, it was hit
by another vehicle, as claimed by several sources, or if the driver lost
control, as claimed in the official version.

Payá was in the car with the dissident activist Harold Cepero who also
died some hours after the accident. The two Cubans were traveling
accompanied by two foreigners, the Spaniard Angel Carromero, 27, and the
Swedish politician Jens Aron Modig, 27. Carromero is a lawyer and
advisor to the City of Madrid, and secretary of the New Generations of
the People's Party in the Spanish capital. Modig chairs the Christian
Democrat Youth League.

All were taken to the Professor Carlos Manuel Clinical Surgery Hospital
in Bayamo, where hospital officials said that Oswaldo Payá was already
dead when he arrived. After hours of incomplete reports, his wife Ofelia
Acevedo was notified of his death through a Catholic Church source.

The two injured have been hospitalized in the same facility and,
according to confirmations from El Pais newspaper, only suffered minor
injuries. The entire hospital is surrounded by a heavy police operation,
and it is impossible to communicate by telephone with the room where
both Angel Carromero and Jens Aron Modig are being treated.

Rosa María Payá, the daughter of the deceased dissident, told several
media that "they wanted to hurt" her father, "and ended up killing him."
Similar suspicions are growing among opposition figures as well, but
will have to wait for the testimony of the two survivors and for the
results of police investigations.

The Varela Project

In 2002 Oswaldo Payá received the European Parliament's Sakharov prize,
which was specially awarded for his work on the Varela Project. This
initiative proposed a constitutional amendment under a process supported
by legislation then in force on the Island. Through the Varela Project,
he proposed the holding of a national referendum to allow free
association, freedom of expression and of the press, called for free
elections, promoted freedom to engage in business, and called for an
amnesty for political prisoners.

Together with other members of the Christian Liberation Movement and
activists of the banned opposition, Payá managed to present the National
Assembly of People's Power some 11,000 signatures on March 10, 2002. Two
years later another 14,000 signatures were added, but the Cuban
government rejected the demand for a popular referendum.

Instead, the official response was to declare the socialist character of
the country's prevailing system irrevocable, in a gesture that was
popularly called the "constitutional mummification." Surveillance and
repression around Payá increased from that date, including arrests,
threats and repudiation rallies in front of his house.

In March 2003, when the Black Spring occurred, about 40 members of the
MLC were among the 75 defendants. Their sentences ranged from 6 to 28
years in prison on charges of violating national sovereignty. The vast
majority of them had to wait to be released until 2010, when an
unprecedented dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Cuban
government ended with the freeing of these dissidents. Although Payá was
not arrested or prosecuted, during all this time he did not cease to
denounce the situation of the convicted activists.

Secularism and civility

Born in 1952 and raised in a family with a strong Catholic tradition,
Oswaldo Payá had a religious upbringing. He attended a Marist Brothers
school until 1961, at which time it was taken over by Fidel Castro's
government. When he was just 16 he did his military service and during
that stage of his life was punished for refusing to transport a group of
political prisoners. That refusal caused him to be sent to serve three
years hard labor on the Isle of Pines.

On finishing this sentence he joined a parish youth group in his
neighborhood of Cerro. Indeed his outstanding labor as a layperson led
him to work on the process of Cuban Ecclesiastic Reflection (REC) and he
served as delegate to the Cuban National Ecclesiastic Meeting (ENEC) in
1986. In parallel to his opposition activities he continued to work as a
specialist in electrical equipment for a State agency. He had graduated
as a telecommunications engineer.

In 1988 Payá founded the Christian Liberation Movement that quickly
became one of the most important organizations of the nascent Cuban
civil society. He also participated in drafting the Transitional Program
to promote political change in the largest of the Antilles. From his
status as a prominent leader he signed the Todos Unidos [Altogether]
manifesto and served as coordinator for its rapporteur commission.

In 2009 he developed a Call for the National Dialogue and at the time of
his death was championing an initiative to allow Cubans to freely enter
and leave their own country. But his breakthrough as an opponent had
come with the creation and dissemination of the Varela Project, an
initiative that began to be developed by the MCL in 1998.

For his work he was awarded the W. Averell Harriman Prize, awarded
annually by the National Democratic Institute in Washington and the Homo
Homini Award of the Czech foundation People in Need. New York's Columbia
University named him an honorary Doctor of Laws and he was nominated
several times for the Nobel Peace Prize. He was received in Rome by Pope
John Paul II during the same trip that took him to the European
parliament ceremony for the Sakharov Prize.

On his death he left three children, Oswaldo José, Rosa María, and
Reinaldo Isaías, and also his widow Ofelia Acevedo.

With the death of Oswaldo Payá the Cuban opposition loses one of its
most outstanding figures in both the national and international arenas.
Gone, physically, is a politician of great importance for the political
transition in the island, a prominent layman in the Catholic Church, and
a man who was a bridge between the Cuban diaspora and the nation.

The body of Oswaldo Payá will be transferred to Havana where there will
be a wake in the parish of Cerro, the neighborhood where he lived.

23 July 2012

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