The Oswaldo Payá mystery continues
By Jackson Diehl, Monday, September 17, 1:40 AM
On the evening of July 22, a string of revealing text messages and phone
calls circulated between Cuba, Sweden and Spain and back to Cuba — where
Oswaldo Payá, one of the country's bravest and most influential
dissidents, was lying dead on a rural highway. That, anyway, is the
story of Regis Iglesias Ramirez, an associate of Payá and former
political prisoner who says he is determined to expose what he believes
was a state-sponsored murder.
Iglesias, who was released into exile in Madrid two years ago and
visited Washington last week, said he was contacted that evening by a
Spanish Christian activist named Cayetano Muriel, who in turn had been
called by Annika Rigo, a Swede who heads the Christian Democratic
International Center in Stockholm. Iglesias says he was told that Rigo
had received a text message from Cuba saying that a young Swedish
Christian Democratic activist, Jens Aron Modig, had been in a terrible
accident: A car in which he was riding had been followed and forced off
the road by another vehicle. The text said three people from the car had
been transported to a hospital, and one was missing.
The Post's deputy editorial page editor, Diehl also writes a biweekly
foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.
Modig and a youth leader from Spain's ruling Popular Party, Angel
Carromero, had traveled to Cuba to make contact with Payá, leader of
Cuba's Christian Liberation Movement and the author of a groundbreaking
2002 petition seeking a popular referendum on the introduction of
democratic freedoms. So Iglesias says he first texted and then called
Payá's wife, Ofelia Acevedo, who was in Havana, to see if she had heard
Payá's family knew nothing. But soon afterward came the terrible news
from Cuban authorities: Payá and another dissident, Harold Cepero, were
dead; and Carromero, who was driving the rented Hyundai sedan they were
riding in along with Modig, was accused of causing a one-car accident.
Two months later, that remains the official story. Carromero appeared on
Cuban state television, where he confessed to losing control of the car
and hitting a tree. He also urged that international attention focus on
"getting me out of here." He faces trial on charges of negligent
homicide. Modig was held incommunicado for five days in Havana, then
allowed to return home, where he has remained mostly silent. His spare
communications, delivered before leaving Havana and in Stockholm,
contain two salient points: He claims not to remember what happened in
the crash; and he is worried about Carromero.
As far as Iglesias and other members of Payá's movement are concerned,
it's quite clear what this adds up to. The accident, they say, was
likely caused by Cuban state security, which has managed to silence the
survivors by holding the 27-year-old Spaniard as a defacto hostage. The
Spanish government, argue the dissidents, is content to tolerate this
travesty for two reasons: It wants to free its well-connected activist,
who is facing 10 years in prison; and it wants to avoid the diplomatic
uproar that would necessarily ensue if it were acknowledged that Payá —
a recipient of the European Union's Andrei Sakharov human rights prize —
had been killed by the regime.
The activists claim there is more evidence of foul play than the July 22
text messages. Iglesias says friends of the Payáfamily traveled to the
hospital where the victims of the accident were taken on July 22. There
they allegedly encountered Carromero, who repeated that he had been hit
from behind and forced off the road by a red Lada sedan. A local police
officer read them testimony from two local witnesses who said they saw
the Lada at the scene of the accident. According to Iglesias, the Payá
friends said a state security officer at the hospital sharply disputed
Carromero's story and appeared to intimidate him into changing it.
Why would the government of Raul Castro seek to kill a dissident whom it
had left unmolested for a decade? After all, the regime has been seeking
accommodation with the Catholic Church and Western governments; it has
released most political prisoners (including Iglesias) and introduced
modest economic reforms. Iglesias thinks he knows the answer to that.
Payá, he says, had become an obstacle to Castro's strategy, labeling the
liberalization "the fraudulent change" and organizing support for an
alternative platform demanding free elections.
The July 22 accident was the second one involving Payá in less than two
months. On June 2, a Volkswagen van Payá was driving in Havana was
struck by a taxi that Iglesias says was driven by a retired police officer.
Is all this coincidence and conspiracy theory? Could be. But a couple of
things are striking about the case Iglesias lays out. First, it's hardly
implausible that the Cuban regime would pursue a leading dissident on a
road trip; cause his death by accident or intention; and then try to
blackmail the survivors into silence. Also, as long as the Castros
continue to rule Cuba, it probably won't be possible to determine the truth.