- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
Once again, a prominent Cuban dissident has met an untimely death under suspicious circumstances. According to the Castro regime, Oswaldo Payá, 60, was killed Sunday in a "one-car accident" after the vehicle in which he was riding skidded off the road and collided with a tree. A dissident colleague of his was also killed and two Europeans in Cuba to support Cuba’s oppressed opposition movement were injured.
Payá’s family immediately disputed the official version of what had happened. His daughter told CNN that the car in which her father and the others were riding was actually struck by another vehicle before losing control. His son told the BBC that his father had received many death threats and another well-known dissident, Marta Beatriz Roque, told reporters, "He had said they were going to kill him. And this was the third accident he had this year."
Indeed. Ramming vehicles carrying dissidents and foreign supporters, including diplomats, has been a stock-in-trade act of intimidation by Cuban state security for years. It is entirely believable that this was another such incident gone horribly wrong. Only the two Europeans can set the record straight. They are said to be now in the care of their embassies.
Oswaldo Payá was a Cuban patriot, best known for his spearheading the Varela Project, named after a famous Cuban clergyman and independence advocate, which used provisions of Castro’s own constitution to challenge the lack of basic civil and human rights in Cuba, for which he collected some 11,000 signatures on the island.
Humiliated, the regime could not do anything but expressly violate its own constitution by ignoring Payá’s petition and staging yet another mass mobilization to convince no one "the people" were united behind the Castro regime. For this effort, Payá was awarded the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Payá, a devout Catholic, was his own man, beholden to no one. He was never cowed by the regime’s incessant harassment and intimidation tactics, and he would diverge from prevalent thought in the Cuban exile community. He once wrote in the Miami Herald, "Lifting the embargo won’t solve the problems of the Cuban people. Maintaining it is no solution, either."
Oswaldo Payá was man of independent thought and action. Although his profile began to wane in recent years with the emergence of a younger generation of home-grown Cuban activists savvy in the ways of electronic media, a man like Payá would have been indispensable in reconciling the Cuban nation following fifty-plus years of tyranny under the Castro brothers. He was about non-violence and mutual respect and he believed in the unity of the Cuban nation. Instead, another powerful and enlightened Cuban voice has been silenced by the Castro regime’s intolerance and cowardice.
In this country, one hopes that Payá’s sacrifice can have some effect on the thinking of critics of U.S. policy. Payá was everything their caricature of Cuban dissidents was not; he did not receive official U.S. support, he would criticize U.S. policy and exile opinion when he believed it necessary, and he tried to affect reform working within the system — something even former President Jimmy Carter supported.
And still it did not protect him from the regime’s wrath. The question those critics ought to be asking themselves now is, where do we go from here?