The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Finally there could be an opportunity for truth and justice in Oswaldo Payá’s death

Oswaldo Payá, seen here in 2006, was killed in July 2012 while in a car in Cuba. (Javier Galeano/AP)
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Kerry Kennedy is a human rights lawyer and the longtime president of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization.

For more than 60 years now, my family has had grave concerns about the restriction of fundamental rights of the Cuban people, concerns that have remained strong despite the march of time and the repeated failures of U.S. foreign policy to support the Cuban people.

While the players and technology have changed since the early days of Fidel Castro’s regime, repression in Cuba continues unabated, with restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of movement and due process continuing to plague the lives of its citizens.

This year, Cubans took to the streets for a wave of unprecedented protests over the pandemic response, food and medicine shortages, censorship, and repression. They were met by a campaign of persecution. The toll of the repression remains unclear, but now a key case has reached the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, offering an opportunity to further expose the state: the case of Oswaldo Payá, a committed human rights advocate and dissident who led the movement calling for a democratic referendum on Cuba’s future.

Payá was killed one afternoon in July 2012 when the car he was traveling in from Havana to Santiago de Cuba was rammed from behind by a vehicle with state license plates. Also traveling with him: fellow pro-democracy activist Harold Cepero, Swedish politician and Young Christian Democrats Chair Jens Aron Modig and Spanish youth party leader Ángel Carromero, who was driving the car. Carromero and Modig survived; Cepero was also killed.

Carromero was convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to four years in prison in a sham trial after a sham investigation. The police prevented Payá’s family from attending the trial, and the regime exercised its power to cover up the facts in the media.

We may never know all the details of the last moments of Payá's and Cepero’s lives, but this much is abundantly clear: The Cuban state is responsible for their murders, and their families have been unable to obtain justice.

Carromero says he was forced by government officials to change his original statement and confess and was deprived of his right to a fair trial. What’s more, the investigation and subsequent trial for the killings of Payá and Cepero were carried out in the context of full authoritarianism.

During the investigation, the prosecution ignored complaints from the Payá family, based on findings they had personally obtained — that government officials had caused the car crash, killing Payá and Cepero. These facts were never made part of the investigation.

Meanwhile, the Cuban authorities never communicated the results of Payá’s autopsy.

Officials washed and packed the clothes he wore at the time of the crash before returning them to his family, preventing an independent scientific analysis.

The families have not had access to the truth through a transparent, independent investigation. Instead, they were forced into exile by the persecution of Cuban authorities who have repeatedly denied their right to justice and their right to the truth.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the organization formed to carry out my father’s legacy of working toward a more just and peaceful world, filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of Payá’s family in 2013, claiming that the state of Cuba was responsible for his and Cepero’s deaths and that their families were not guaranteed access to justice and an adequate and effective remedy. Finally, on Dec. 14, the commission heard heartfelt testimony from the family in an open, public hearing.

As The Post’s editorial board noted in 2014, the case presents a unique opportunity to show the world that an authoritarian regime cannot simply “snuff out a voice of freedom with such absolute impunity.” Seven years later, the Cuban regime’s authoritarian practices are as strong as ever.

This time of year, between the anniversaries of my father’s birthday and my uncle’s death, I find myself acutely mulling the legacies of their lives, and the pain of losing them too soon.

In this feeling, I am united with the Payá family, who knew better than anyone how much more Oswaldo Payá had to contribute to Cuba and the world.

It is our great hope that putting the details of this case on full display after so many years will prompt the human rights commission to act and soon issue a favorable decision holding the state of Cuba responsible for the murders of Payá and Cepero.

In the wait for justice, we are reminded of a line my father wrote in 1962, as he was working on “Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis”:

“But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.”

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