A CAR WRECK on a road outside of Bayamo, Cuba, last July 22 tragically took the life of dissident Oswaldo Payá and youth activist Harold Cepero. The circumstances of their deaths are suspicious and need investigation. But whoever attempted to kill Mr. Payá could not extinguish his message. On Tuesday, a forceful exponent of that message, Mr. Payá’s daughter Rosa Maria, brought it to Washington.

The message is that genuine democratic change of the kind Mr. Payá sought has not yet come to Cuba. Cosmetic “reforms” have been launched, intended to impress the outside world while preserving the Castro regime’s grip on power. Ms. Payá cautioned that these “false images” must not be confused with political and economic freedom, which Cubans do not yet enjoy.

“It would be nice,” Ms. Payá declared at a forum of the National Endowment for Democracy, if people in Cuba could speak freely, travel without restriction, carry out business with whomever they like and live free of the fear of arbitrary arrest or violence. But none of these rights exists. “I’m sorry, but things are not nice right now in my country,” she said, “although a lot of Cubans are working for real change and this is definitely the nice part.”

Indeed, Ms. Payá suggests that Cuba is at an inflection point. Her father worked hard to prepare the groundwork for a transition to democracy. Now, with Fidel and Raul Castro in their sunset years, such a transition is no longer a distant dream. For a decade, Mr. Payá had been working on a petition demanding political freedoms in Cuba. When he presented the petition to the National Assembly in 2002, he had 11,020 signatures; now there are more than 25,000. “My father knew he was close to the moment,” she told us during a visit to The Post Tuesday afternoon.

The transition must make democracy “legal, specific and real,” she declared, and not give way to another thinly veiled brand of authoritarianism. “We don’t need another Russia or China,” she said. “Today, my father’s voice reminds us that all dictatorships have no political color — not right or left, they are only dictatorships.”

For many Cubans who worked with Mr. Payá, these are dangerous times, as the government continues to repress alternative voices and harass those who demand basic rights. There are signs that some people are shedding their fears, Ms. Payá observed, but it is not because the state has loosened its grip. Ms. Payá and her family have been targets of death threats. “We need the international community to pay attention,” she said, not avert its gaze.

For the last few weeks, permitted to travel abroad, Ms. Payá has spoken out courageously in support of her father’s dream of a participatory democracy in Cuba. She has echoed his oft-expressed wish for forgiveness, but Cuba’s future cannot be built on a falsified past or an obliterated truth. The first step is to fully and completely investigate the death of Oswaldo Payá and then to see Cuba toward the new horizon of freedom Mr. Payá envisioned and his daughter so eloquently describes.