Oswaldo Payá, a humble but determined figure in Cuba’s opposition, who believed in non-violent activism as a means for achieving political change on the island, died in a car accident on Sunday. Also killed was Harold Cepero Escalante, a fellow dissident. A Swedish citizen and a Spaniard, reportedly at the wheel of the car, were injured in the crash. We report other details below.
Payá, a Catholic layman, and founder of Cuba’s so-called Christian Liberation Movement, was best known as the main organizer behind the Varela Project, a petition drive that collected thousands of signatures, which called upon his country’s National Assembly to propose new laws to open Cuba’s system.
His loss also occasioned dark suggestions – expressed by grieving family members and in the opinion pages of the Washington Post –that his vehicle was intentionally rammed. But Elizardo Sanchez, founder of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission told the Associated Press,“We rule out any conspiracy theory.” Diplomats connected to the Europeans traveling with Mr. Payá, told Reuters “they believe it was a genuine accident and it appeared the car was speeding.”
Despite these statements, members of the U.S. Senate introduced a resolution calling upon the island’s government to “allow an impartial, third-party investigation in the circumstances surrounding (his) death.”
That Mr. Payá’s passing would be a source of contention, even politicization, is hardly a surprise. His unique approach attracted support and courted controversy during his life.
By technique and demeanor, Payá didn’t fit any stereotype of a regime opponent. As the New York Times reported, Mr. Payá “created a new model with his humility, his public rejection of both American aid and the American trade embargo, and his effort to draw Cubans into the movement.
“By trying to reform the Castro government,” the Times said, “Mr. Payá placed himself in the middle of two extremes. Reviled by the government, he was not much loved by hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami, either; they appreciated the attention he garnered but said he was naïve.”
They called him naïve because he wouldn’t hew to their line that regime change supported by the U.S. was the only way forward.
In a meeting with visitors from the U.S., Payá once said “we don’t have arms, we don’t believe in coup d’état, we don’t believe in outside intervention. We Cubans must bring about the change.”
While he was no fan of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, he challenged visitors to think not about U.S. policy, but instead to focus on the economic, political, and social problems that affected everyday Cubans. A man with a lowered voice and an outstretched hand, he would say about disagreements in our perspectives, “if we cannot be partners, we can at least be friends.”
Our hearts go out to his family and friends, colleagues and allies, who are suffering because of his loss.
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