According to reports from witnesses and family, Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas died Sunday (July 22) afternoon in a car accident near the city of Bayamo. According to the Cuban website CubaDebate, the accident occurred around 1:50 p.m., 14 miles from Bayamo. Another passenger, Harold Cepero Escalante, died in the crash and two others survived.
As expected, there are already conflicting reports about the cause of the car accident. CubaDebate reports the car "lost control and crashed into a tree" based on eyewitnesses. But, according to Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, Paya's vehicle "was hit by another [car] and went off the road" according to witnesses. Oswaldo Payá's daughter, Rosa Maria, also makes the assertion that the car was intentionally hit based on "information we received from the young men who were traveling with [Payá]."
Investigations are currently underway.
In 2002, Oswaldo Payá became one of Cuba's best known dissidents when he led a petition campaign, the Varela Project, for political reforms and collected over 11,000 signatures. Days later, Jimmy Carter visited Cuba and mentioned the Varela Project during a nationally televised speech at the University of Havana. In 2003, the Varela Project was able to collect over 14,000 signatures in its continued campaign for political reforms.
In Miami, the Varela Project was rejected by Cuban exile militants and hard-liners who felt that petitioning within the legal system would create "a dangerous legitimation of the dictatorship." For some militants it was total betrayal. In its detail and character, the Varela Project also posed a philosophical challenge to post-Castro transition plans designed by Miami hard-liners who reject ideas of amnesty and forgiveness of past crimes.
Now, in response to Payá's death, many will debate where the Varela Project stands. In recent public comments, Cuban exile Marcelino Miyares has said that "the moment of the [Varela] Project has passed. I don't think it will have a resurrection."
--- [Update 1] ---
Recent reports reveal that Oswaldo Payá had been in another car accident last month in Havana. According to Oswaldo's brother Carlos, Oswaldo was riding in a van that flipped over after being hit by another car. Oswaldo suffered only bruises, and did not inform the international media out of prudence. Carlos is demanding an investigation to clarify what happened yesterday. On the other hand, Oswaldo Paya's widow, Ofelia Acevedo, is rejecting reports that Payá's car lost control, and believes that the car was intentionally attacked by another vehicle. She cites "friends" that have heard this information directly from the survivors of the car accident.
The two survivors of the car accident that killed Oswaldo Payá have been identified as Ángel Carromero and Jens Aron Modig, both associated with political organizations wishing to cooperate with Cuban dissidents. According to this report from Spain, Carromero was driving at the time of the accident, but was released from the Bayamo hospital with only a minor head injury. Carromero has been in contact with friends in Spain and being accompanied by Álvaro Kirpatrick, Spanish Consul in Havana. Carromero has already his eyewitness account to police in Cuba, but has yet to make public statements to the media.
Nevertheless, Spanish-language media is already presenting Oswaldo Payá's death as "premeditated." Telemundo 51 and Univision 23 both use the word "premeditated" in their reports to describe the car accident. On the radio today, Ramon Saul Sanchez described the car accident as part of a "gradual extermination" of Cuban dissidents. And Diario Las Americas today describes yesterday's tragedy as what "responsible people call a provoked accident."
An online poll conducted yesterday by Telemundo 51 showed that 93% of viewers (from over 200 votes) believe the death of Oswaldo Payá was "premeditated."
--- [Update 2] ---
The reported driver of the car which crashed on Sunday, killing Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, is still in the city of Bayamo and being questioned by police. According to recent reports, Ángel Carromero again has been questioned about the tragic accident and being kept in Bayamo until investigations are complete. He is still being accompanied by Álvaro Kirpatrick, Spanish Consul in Havana.
Interestingly, but not yet confirmed, a recent Univision article reports that Carromero "did not see a traffic sign to reduce speed. For that reason he lost control of the vehicle and fell by an incline." The local website Cafe Fuerte has also found two photos of the crashed vehicle that killed Payá and Harold Cepero. The damage looks like the car did indeed hit a tree near the back, killing both Payá and Cepero who reportedly sat in the back.
--- [Update 3] ---
A report from Reuters (Rosa Tania Valdes) cites "european diplomats" close to survivors of the crash confirming the crash was accidental: "The diplomats, who asked not to be identified, said it
appeared the vehicle, traveling at well above the speed limit,
hit a large pot hole, veered off the road and hit a tree." It also appears that the driver, Ángel Carromero, may also face criminal charges of reckless driving and involuntary manslaughter.
--- [Update 4] ---
On Friday (July 27), the Cuban Interior Ministry released an official statement (BBC/Miami Herald) concerning the car crash that killed Cuban dissidents Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero earlier this week. According to the statement, Ángel Carromero was driving the vehicle carrying Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero in the backseat. Another passenger, Jens Aron Modig, was sitting in the front passenger seat, asleep just before the accident. The car spun out of control after it suddenly stopped on top of an unpaved road under construction, hitting a tree and fatally injuring Payá and Cepero. It is suspected that the car was traveling over 70 mph.
The details of the crash were prepared by four experts in Cuba, each with over 8 years of experience in different fields. The statement provides the names of the experts and the Cuban eyewitnesses that provided statements to the police. The note ends stating that official investigations are still underway.
In response, the widow of Oswaldo Payá, Ofelia Acevedo, has rejected the official note and is demanding to speak with the survivors of the crash (who remain in Cuba while the investigation is underway), and a review of the evidence by independent experts in Cuba.
--- [Update 5] ---
On Monday (July 30), the Cuban government arranged a press conference allowing survivor of the crash Aron Modig to answer questions for the international press. Modig, who was asleep just before the accident, told reporters he had no recollection of a second vehicle involved in the crash. He also assured the press that his statements were sincere and would not change when he leaves Cuba. Modig explained that his goals inside Cuba were to help organize a youth-led version of Oswaldo Payá's Christian Liberation Movement. He planned to donate thousands of dollars to those dissidents. Modig later apologized saying he didn't know it was illegal to fund a dissident movement inside Cuba.
The press conference (edited video) also included a video presentation with recorded statements by Modig, Ángel Carromero, the other crash survivor, and a computer-generated reconstruction of the accident. In the video, Carromero stated that there was no second vehicle involved in the crash and that he had simply lost control of the vehicle after braking on a gravel section of an unfinished road. He also confirmed that Modig and himself planned to help organize a youth-led dissident movement, and visit dissidents with Payá in Santiago de Cuba. [Sources: Miami Herald/BBC/BBC Mundo (includes video)]
--- [Update 6] ---
On July 31, Ángel Carromero was officially charged with "homicide while driving a vehicle on public roads" and now faces one to ten years in prison. Meanwhile in Madrid, investigations found that Carromero had committed several traffic infractions (45 fines since March 2011, including 3 for speeding) and was notified last May that his license faced suspension. On August 9 his license was officially suspended.
The other survivor of the tragic accident, Aron Modig, gave his first interview since leaving Cuba to a Swedish newspaper. It was published on August 10 (Google English translation/Spanish translation), and reveals some important details of Modig's experience after the crash. Modig, clearly free from any form of persuasion, reiterated that he was asleep just before the accident and only remembers seeing the car out of control before he lost consciousness. Modig describes being regularly interrogated by Cuban police about his plans in Cuba (but not about the accident), and confined five days in a house where he was kept until his appearance before the international press. Modig was allowed to leave the country thereafter. Modig says he's very concerned about Ángel Carromero in Cuba.
In Spain, International Cooperation Secretary of State for Ibero-America Jesús Gracia Aldaz has publicly stated that he is optimistic in getting Carromero released from prison, and working with the Cuban government to achieve this despite "difficult" relations over the years.
[Official biography of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas]
[Tracy Eaton from Along the Malecon blog interviewed Oswaldo Payá last year at length. It is here in Spanish.]
[Photo by Getty Images / Oswaldo Payá posing by a sculpture that represents the oppression of the Cuban people on December 13, 2002 in Havana.]