July 19, 2013

WHEN A blue rental car skidded off the road in rural Cuba on July 22, two men riding in the back seat were killed: dissident Oswaldo Payá, 60, and Harold Cepero, 32, the head of the youth wing of Mr. Payá’s Christian Liberation Movement. Mr. Cepero had trained in the seminary but later decided on human rights work. Their deaths, and much about the car crash, remain suspicious; the Spanish politician who was at the wheel has said they were forced off the road by a vehicle bearing government license plates.

Mr. Payá and Mr. Cepero were among the hardy band of dissidents who have remained committed to fighting for democracy in Cuba despite threats and intimidation from the Castro regime. On Wednesday, Mr. Cepero posthumously was one of four recipients of the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2013 Democracy Award. Receiving the honor for him was Mr. Payá’s daughter, Rosa Maria Payá, who has sustained the torch — and the spirit — of their quest.

After speaking out in Europe and the United States this year, Ms. Payá returned to Cuba to find repression tightening around her and her family. Visitors to their home were harassed. Ominous threats published in state-run media warned they were “playing with fire.” On June 6, Ms. Payá, her mother, Ofelia Acevedo, and five other family members fled to Miami, where they have settled as political refugees. The Cuban authorities let them depart without fuss — no doubt pleased to see them off.

It would be a mistake to consider this the end of the matter. Ms. Payá told us she intends to carry on the work of her father, who championed the Varela Project, a movement for nonviolent change centered on a referendum calling for political freedoms. Fidel Castro didn’t like the idea when Mr. Payá first raised it a decade ago, and many of Mr. Payá’s colleagues were arrested and jailed. Mr. Payá was frequently harassed. His daughter hopes to return to Cuba and points out that this is a moment of vulnerability for the Castro brothers in their twilight years, primarily because of the nation’s economic woes and loss of Hugo Chávez’s patronage from Venezuela.

One significant piece of unfinished business is to explain the death of Mr. Payá and Mr. Cepero in the car wreck. Ms. Payá has demanded an impartial and rigorous international investigation, but one has yet to be mounted, and Cuba is not likely to cooperate. Mr. Payá was also a Spanish citizen, yet Spain has so far been weak-kneed about pursuing the truth. Ms. Payá and others close to her family are considering filing a petition in the Spanish courts for a serious inquiry into crimes against humanity — not only her father’s death but also efforts to squelch his movement. That might begin to lift the veil and pose some uncomfortable questions for whoever forced the car carrying Mr. Payá and Mr. Cepero off the road.