Friday, July 24, 2015

The Forgotten, Mysterious Death of Cuba’s Top Dissident

The Forgotten, Mysterious Death of Cuba's Top Dissident

Exactly three years ago, prominent Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá was
traveling in a Hyundai sedan from Havana to Santiago de Cuba along with
three other people when the car struck a patch of gravel and veered off
the road, striking a tree and killing him and one other passenger. At
least that's the Cuban government's official version of events, and it's
one that Payá's family and the driver of the car have never accepted.
They believe the Hyundai was rammed by a government car and forced off
the road.

A new report published Wednesday from the Human Rights Foundation, an
advocacy group, assembles the evidence in the Payá case. And while it
doesn't conclusively prove that the activist was assassinated by the
Cuban government, it presents a damning case that Havana is, at the very
least, trying to cover up what happened on the road from Havana to
Santiago de Cuba.

The report comes as the United States and Cuba have embarked on a
historic rapprochement, symbolized by the opening this week of each
nation's embassy in the other's capital. It's a major diplomatic
achievement for the White House, one that might put to bed one of the
vestigial conflicts of the Cold War. Critics of the diplomatic opening
have long argued that it does nothing to improve the human rights
situation on the island, and Wednesday's report documents the extent of
Cuba's mechanisms of repression.

At the time of his death, Payá was arguably Cuba's most prominent
dissident. He was a champion of the Varela Project, a draft bill that
proposed a referendum for Cubans to decide on how to best secure their
basic rights. Payá won the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of
Thought in 2002. Yoani Sánchez, the dissident writer, described his
death as a tragedy for Cuba as "a dramatic loss for its present and an
irreplaceable loss for its future."

Travelling with Payá, who was the head of the Christian Liberation
Movement, were three other people: the driver, Ángel Carromero, the
youth wing leader of Spain's People's Party; Jens Aron Modig,
then-chairman of Sweden's Young Christian Democrats; and Harold Cepero,
a Cuban pro-democracy activist. Carromero and Modig survived the crash.
The two Cubans in the car died. Modig claims he was asleep when the
crash happened, so what happened next depends on the testimony of Carromero.

In its investigation of the crash, Cuban authorities placed the blame
entirely on Carromero for driving the Hyundai too fast. When he hit a
patch of gravel on the road, he abruptly stepped on the brakes, causing
the car to skid off the road. Shortly after the crash, the Cuban
government broadcast a video of Carromero corroborating this sequence of
events. Carromero was convicted for vehicular manslaughter and sentenced
to four years in prison. Transferred to Spain in late 2012, Carromero
now says he was coerced into making that video.

According to repeated public statements by Carromero, what actually
happened on July 22, 2012, was that a car, likely belonging to Cuban
authorities, rammed the Hyundai, causing the driver to lose control and
the car to careen off the road. In the chaos that followed, Carromero
lost his cell phone, but Modig managed to hold on to his. While at the
hospital, Modig sent text messages to friends in Sweden saying that
Carromero told him that the car they had been traveling in had been
forced off the road.

Cuban authorities pounced on Carromero while he was still in the
hospital. While drugged, according to the report, Carromero was
approached by agents who informed him of the state's version of events
and forced him to sign a confession backing their account. He was then
held in a filthy prison and effectively denied access to counsel.

There are other reasons to doubt the Cuban government's version of
events. Payá's supporters claim to have collected witness testimony
backing Carromero's account that there was a second car on the road that
day and that it was a red Lada. A technical analysis of photographs from
the crash site cited in the report indicated that it had been tampered
with. Payá's family was never formally informed by the government of his

If Cuban government agents were in fact behind Payá's death, it remains
unclear what their motive was. Did they intend to kill him by ramming
his car? Or was the crash a case of intimidation gone wrong? We will
likely never know.

Unsurprisingly, the Human Rights Foundation report on Payá's death finds
the Cuban government in violation of several aspects of international
law, among them a right to a fair trial, prohibitions against forced
confessions, and a family's right to know the truth.

Cuba and the United States are now embarking on a new phase in their
relationship, with President Barack Obama's administration betting that
a policy of openness will deliver what decades of antagonism haven't:
Concrete improvements in the political and civil rights of Cuban
citizens. Payá's case illustrates just how urgent that bet is.

Correction, July 23, 2015: An earlier version of this story incorrectly
reported that Jens Aron Modig did not remember sending text messages
after the crash describing what happened. Modig says he remembers
sending the messages but not the crash itself.

Source: The Forgotten, Mysterious Death of Cuba's Top Dissident |
Foreign Policy -

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