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The Forgotten, Mysterious Death of Cuba’s Top Dissident

Oswaldo Payá died three years ago today in what the Cuban government claims was a car crash.

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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 death.

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. 

Photo credit: ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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