Wall Street Journal
July 25, 2012
Twice in the past year a popular and internationally recognized leader for democracy in Cuba has died in unusual circumstances.
On Sunday 60-year-old Oswaldo Payá died in a car crash in the eastern province of Granma, near the city of Bayamo. Fellow dissident Harold Cepero also died. Two foreigners—a lawyer and political activist from Madrid and a Swedish politician—were in the car but escaped with minor injuries.
Payá was a fervent Catholic and pacifist who devoted his life to resisting the Castro dictatorship. In 1988 he founded the Christian Liberation Movement, and his work on the Varela Project made him a global hero.
Varela collected 25,000 signatures in support of a national referendum on free elections, the release of political prisoners and the right to free assembly, free speech and freedom to run a business. That so many Cubans were willing to risk reprisals by signing their names was a testament to their belief in Payá’s example. In 2002 he received the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for his bravery and moral leadership.
Payá’s petition was lawful in Cuba at the time, and Fidel Castro responded by changing the law, declaring the socialist system irrevocable. In March 2003 the dictator rounded up 75 dissidents, journalists and writers, including some 40 Payá lieutenants who had worked on Varela, and sentenced them to long prison terms. Payá wasn’t arrested and continued his denunciations of the dictatorship. His work always emphasized the need to rebuild Cuban spirituality and raise the population’s awareness of its rights.
Payá’s death comes nine months after the death of Laura Pollan, the leader of the Ladies in White, who won the Sakharov Prize in 2005. The Ladies had worked to win the release of imprisoned relatives, and Pollan later widened her human-rights work and expanded the organization. In October she came down with a mysterious illness and died after a week in a Cuban hospital. Her family never learned the details of her illness because her body was cremated within two hours of her death.
Castro may believe another problem is gone. But when the island’s liberation finally comes, Payá and Pollan will count for more in Cuban memory.
A version of this article appeared July 25, 2012, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Oswaldo Payá.