Mourners shout opposition slogans during a funeral mass honoring the Cuban activist Oswaldo Paya in Havana, Cuba, Monday, July 23, 2012. Paya, who spent decades speaking out against the communist government of Fidel and Raul Castro and became one of the most powerful voices of dissent against their half-century rule, died Sunday in a car crash. He was 60. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá was buried Tuesday as police dragged off and allegedly beat at least 40 supporters who shouted “Freedom!” after his funeral mass, in a clash watched by a large and impassive crowd in Havana.
Relatives and supporters voiced new allegations that Payá was killed in a car crash caused by another vehicle, but a Madrid newspaper reported the Spaniard at the wheel of the car carrying the dissident told police the accident was his fault.
Police detained 40 to 50 dissidents, and beat some of them severely, as more than 300 people left the El Salvador del Mundo church Tuesday morning and started the funeral procession to the Colón Cemetery, said Havana human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez..
Among those reported “brutally beaten” was dissident Guillermo Fariñas, winner of the 2010 European Parliament’s Sakharov price, which Payá won in 2002. Several had been released by Tuesday evening, Sánchez told El Nuevo Herald.
A video of the confrontation showed hundreds of passersby watching in stony silence. One woman is heard off-camera shouting “Viva Fidel!” But she does not get the usual “Viva!” response from the crowd and someone tells her, “No one is paying attention to you.”
During the funeral mass, Payá’s daughter, Rosa Maria, declared that she holds the Cuban government responsible for any harm that comes to her family “because of the repeated threats against the life of my father” over the years. A mass was also held for Payá late Tuesday at Ermita de la Caridad, known as the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, in Miami.
Payá and another Cuban dissident, Harold Cepero, were killed and two European politicians — Angel Carromero of Spain and Jens Aron Modig of Sweden — suffered minor injuries in a crash Sunday near the eastern city of Bayamo.
The Cuban government described it as a one-car accident and Spain’s El Mundo newspaper reported Tuesday, without identifying its sources, that Carromero, who was at the wheel, told Cuban police he missed a sign to slow down on a curve, lost control and went off the road.
Payá’s son Oswaldo told journalists Tuesday, however, that the Europeans phoned their bosses in Sweden and Spain Sunday “to say that a truck hit them, crashed into them, rammed them several times until it drove them off the road.”
Carromero also called one of his supervisors hours before the crash to report he was being “pursued” by another vehicle, said Regis Iglesia, the Madrid representative of Payá’s Christian Liberation Movement (MCL). Iglesia told El Nuevo Herald he spoke with the Carromero supervisor, in the youth wing of the ruling Popular Party.
Carromero was being held in Bayamo on Tuesday and could face charges in the fatal crash. Modig gave a deposition Monday and was in Havana on Tuesday trying to a get a seat on a plane to Europe, a European diplomat in the Cuban capital told El Nuevo Herald.
The truth of the crash will not be known until Modig and Carromero go home and offer “an objective and irrefutable testimony” free from possible Cuban government pressures, said Sánchez, whose own preliminary inquiry tended to support the government version.
Payá’s widow, Ofelia Acevedo, told the Miami-based Radio/TV Marti that she learned of the crash when Iglesia called her from Madrid to report the car had been forced off the road and that three of the men were in a Bayamo hospital “but a fourth one was not.”
She dialed his cellular phone and a policeman answered. “He told me that the phone was ringing, and that he had taken it from the pocket of the fatality,” said Acevedo.
Two photos of Carromero’s car, a rented blue Hyundai Accent with license plate T31402, were published Tuesday in the Facebook page of David Rodríguez, a reporter for the government-owned Radio Bayamo.
One photo shows part of a body on a stretcher on the ground on the right side of the car. The other shows a severe impact on the car’s left rear door and roof. Payá, 60, and Cepero, 32, were believed to have been sitting in the back seat. It’s not known whether they were wearing seatbelts.
Payá, a fervent Catholic and one of Cuba’s best known dissidents — his Project Varela gathered 24,000 signatures in 2002 demanding a referendum on the government — had long complained he was constantly followed and threatened by State Security agents.
In one recent email to Miami supporter Julio Hernandez, he wrote that police were following him “step by step” and that “the vigilance of my house has grown” since June 2, when a car smashed into his 1964 Volkswagen bus in Havana. He and his wife were not killed in the “possible attempt” because “God wanted something else,” Payá added.
His brother Carlos, who lives in Madrid, told a Spanish radio station that “Oswaldo had been told clearly, ‘We are going to kill you.’”
Carromero and Modig, a leader of the Youth League of Sweden’s Christian Democratic Party, reportedly went to Cuba on tourist visas but intending to quietly deliver assistance to dissidents. Payá joined them in the trip to the Bayamo region to visit MCL activists there, according to his wife.
Payá’s funeral mass brought together members of Cuba’s many and often fractious dissident groups, and was celebrated by Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, whom Payá had criticized as being too passive in the face of government human rights violations
Ortega praised him as a man and as a Christian — Payá “had a clear political vocation and as a good Christian, that did not distance him from his faith. To the contrary, he always looked within his Christian faith for the inspiration for his political option” — but Ortega made no direct reference to his dissident work.
At the end of the mass, Ortega also read a message from Pope Benedict XVI expressing his “spiritual proximity” to the family. Payá met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 2002.
A story on his death in the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, was headlined “Catholic and Patriot,” and former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar called him “an example of sacrifice and commitment to the cause of democracy.”