August 18, 2012

ON THE AFTERNOON of July 22, in Cuba’s eastern Granma province, a blue Hyundai rental car was in a terrible accident. The driver was Angel Carromero, leader of the youth wing of Spain’s ruling party. Sitting next to him in the front passenger seat was Jens Aron Modig, president of the youth league of Sweden’s Christian Democratic party. Both suffered minor injuries. Cuban dissidents Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero were in the back seat and were killed.

Mr. Payá was a leading voice for freedom in Cuba, champion of the Varela Project, a petition drive in 2002 seeking a national referendum to guarantee democracy. Many organizers of the Varela Project were later arrested by Fidel Castro’s security forces, but Mr. Payá was undeterred and continued to push for a free Cuba. The accident that took his life was blamed by the authorities on reckless driving by Mr. Carromero, who has been charged and is being held in Cuba. In a video made by the authorities just after the accident, Mr. Carromero says that he saw a pothole, braked and lost control of the car, which careened off the road and hit a tree. Mr. Modig, now back in Sweden, says that he was asleep in the car and doesn’t remember what happened.

Mr. Payá’s family is not satisfied. Although Mr. Payá was no longer at the forefront of the Cuban dissident movement, he was an authoritative voice for democracy, and he often received death threats, according to his daughter, Rosa Maria Payá, 23. Only weeks before, in June, Mr. Payá and his wife were driving in Havana when they were hit by another car on the rear passenger side. They suffered minor injuries, but the crash added to their anxiety and suspicions.

On the day of Mr. Payá’s death, his family received a text message at 3:18 p.m. from friends in Madrid inquiring about reports of a car wreck. The people in Spain did not know that Mr. Payá was in the vehicle with Mr. Carromero and Mr. Modig. According to Ms. Payá, the text message says that the car was “forcefully hit and pushed off the road.” It does not say by whom. A photograph of the Hyundai after the accident shows a vehicle crushed from behind.

The two survivors were interrogated at length by the Cuban state security apparatus; Mr. Modig acknowledged bringing about $5,000 to support Mr. Payá’s political work. Neither survivor may feel comfortable saying what happened as long as Mr. Carromero remains in a Cuban prison. But the suggestion in the text message that the car was forced off the road is sufficient to cast doubt on the official version.

Mr. Payá’s family has called for an independent investigation of the crash, although it is not likely to get one from Mr. Castro’s police state. The two survivors might eventually have more to say, and we’ve heard there are additional text messages from the scene. We think an outside investigation could shed light on whether Mr. Payá’s inspiring torch was snuffed out by a vengeful state.

“My father dedicated his life to fight for citizen rights for all Cubans,” Ms. Payá told us. “I am afraid that some evil force took my father’s life. But I think his passion for freedom is now alive in people. Cubans are awakening.”

A first step toward fulfilling Mr. Payá’s promise would be to determine the truth about how he died.