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An eyewitness to Oswaldo Payá’s death speaks out

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IN OCTOBER 2003, the Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá wrote a letter from Havana to his mentor Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president and one-time dissident playwright who fought to throw off communist rule. At the time, Mr. Payá’s hopes for greater freedom in Cuba were being crushed by Fidel Castro in a wide-ranging crackdown. Dozens of his friends and colleagues were being thrown in prison. “I still live in an environment formed by the culture of fear that the communist regime generates throughout society,” Mr. Payá lamented in his letter.

Nearly nine years later — on July 22, 2012 — Mr. Payá, 60, was killed in a car accident in Cuba’s eastern Granma province near the town of Bayamo, along with another activist, Harold Cepero. Both were passengers in the back seat of a rented vehicle. Mr. Payá’s family has challenged the official version of the crash: The car was speeding and skidded into a tree. Today, we publish answers to questions we posed to the man who was at the wheel that day, Ángel Carromero, who was imprisoned and convicted of vehicular homicide in Cuba after the crash. Mr. Carromero, 27, vice general secretary of Spain’s ruling Popular Party, was released to Spain in December to serve out his term, and he speaks out here for the first time since leaving Cuba.

His words are a testament to Cuba’s enduring “culture of fear.” Mr. Carromero offers a grim, detailed account of how the car was rammed from behind by a vehicle bearing Cuban government license plates; he says this caused the fatal crash. Mr. Carromero alleges that he was then drugged and interrogated and his life was threatened. Under duress, he appeared in a video made by Cuban authorities. “No other vehicle hit us from behind,” he said on the tape. But the video was a sham. Mr. Carromero says he was repeating words written in a notebook by a Cuban officer for him to read and that he was forced to sign a confession that bore no resemblance to what happened.

The Carromero story is a nightmare: a sudden impact from behind, mysterious injections, incarceration in a cell infested with cockroaches and stern warnings to repeat official lies. Mr. Carromero says he had gone to Cuba on his own and was driving that day to help a human rights champion, Mr. Payá, who had won the European Union’s Sakharov Prize and was nominated by Mr. Havel for the Nobel Peace Prize. Now Mr. Payá’s family has asked Mr. Carromero to speak out. “When they asked me for the truth, I didn’t want to hide it,” he told us. His decision is a courageous tribute to the principles of Mr. Payá.

FROM HIS youth, Mr. Payá was independent of mind and spirit. He declined to become a member of the Communist Youth League and in 1968 was alone in his class in refusing to support the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to put down the Prague Spring. That cost Mr. Payá three years in a labor camp, but he never failed to be inspired by the example of Czechs and Slovaks, as well as Poles and Hungarians, who resisted oppression. An engineer and a Catholic, he visited Prague years later, after the end of Soviet domination, and he recalled in the letter to Mr. Havel, “It was like traveling to the future and finding proof that liberation is possible.”

In search of that liberation, Mr. Payá pioneered the Varela Project, a petition in 2002 seeking a national referendum to guarantee freedom of expression and association, amnesty for political prisoners and free elections. The petition drew more than 11,000 signatures and shook Mr. Castro’s regime to its core — resulting in a crackdown in which dozens of signers of the petition were sent to dungeons. Mr. Payá was not imprisoned then, but his family recalls he was under constant surveillance. Just two months before he died, there was another suspicious accident in which a car came out of nowhere in Havana and hit theirs. Mr. Payá was injured slightly.

Last summer, when the car Mr. Carromero was driving went out of control, the Cuban authorities must have concluded that they had finally silenced Mr. Payá and would hear no more about him. They probably figured they had intimidated the young Spaniard into silence, too. But they failed. We now have an eyewitness account that strongly suggests Mr. Castro’s agents sought to kill Mr. Payá and then attempted to cover up the murder.

The only proper course of action is to convene an international investigation that can be truly independent and untainted by the Castro regime’s thuggish ways. The legacy of Mr. Payá must be to expose the truth of his death, and to put that truth on display for all to see, especially the people of Cuba, for whom Mr. Payá aspired to nothing less than the right to live free from tyranny.

Read more on this issue: Ángel Carromero on the crash that killed Payá Jackson Diehl: The Oswaldo Payá mystery continues Carl Gershman: Who killed Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá? The Post’s View: Oswaldo Payá, who saw a bright future for his country

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