In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: Daughter carries out father’s bold work in Cuba

A gray Miami morning framed the conversation with Rosa María Payá, blinding rain pouring into Biscayne Bay, long, tear-like droplets streaking the conference room windows.

“What we’re asking for has nothing to do with ideology or party,” the 24-year-old physicist said to the journalists gathered to meet her in the same Miami Herald room where her internationally recognized father presented his ground-breaking — and daring — Varela Project 10 years ago.

“We want to know the truth about what happened to my father and to Harold Cepero.”

Rosa María is the daughter of Oswaldo Payá, the late leader of the island’s peaceful Christian Liberation Movement. And he was the founder of the Varela Project, a human-rights based platform for change that included a signature-gathering drive throughout the island calling for a referendum on Cuba’s leadership.

Payá, 60, died under increasingly questionable circumstances last July along with Harold Cepero, one of the group’s most charismatic young activists.

Rosa María, who had been active in the movement for only two years before her father’s death, has been on a tireless European and U.S. tour — Madrid, Geneva, Sweden, Washington D.C., New York — to get the international community to call for an independent investigation of the car wreck the Cuban government has blamed for the deaths.

Petite but exuding tremendous strength, Rosa María has been methodically collecting evidence, stringing facts together and speaking with witnesses — most importantly, the Spaniard driving the car, Angel Carromero, and the Swede activist Jens Aron Modig, who rode with Carromero up front.

Text messages sent immediately after the wreck by both men, testimony from Carromero that a car with government plates was following and harassing them, then rammed them off the road, and a string of other circumstances such as the government’s refusal to give the family the customary autopsy report and the police accident report, as law requires, all indicate that the crash was not an accident.

The Cuban government was following Payá’s moves that day, and let him know publicly via an official Twitter post at 6:15 a.m when he left his home with Carromero and Modig: “Payá is on the road to Varadero.”

This was not unusual, the daughter said.

State security officers often followed Payá and their threats had become quite blunt, telling him things like: “You are not going to live to see change.”

After their conversations with Rosa María, Carromero and Modig both broke their silence publicly.

In the most complete account to date, published in The Washington Post, Carromero gave a hair-raising narration of what happened from the moment the four men left Havana until he was finally allowed to leave for Spain after the Spanish government negotiated his being allowed to serve in his homeland the four-year-sentence imposed in Cuba. After the accident, he was sedated at a heavily militarized hospital, his life threatened, a confession to reckless driving coerced.

After meeting with Rosa María, Modig described on radio how he was kept a prisoner for more than a week in Cuba without any communication to the outside world, his possessions confiscated. He confirmed the existence of the texts he and Carromero sent. He says he doesn’t doubt Carromero’s account and the information Rosa María had gathered, but has no memory of the crash.

“He says he was sleeping for most of the time they were on the road and that since he doesn’t speak Spanish he’s not sure what the others were talking about,” Rosa María told us. Armed with facts and testimony, Rosa María denounced her father’s death before the United Nations Human Rights Council, not without the interruption of the Cuban representative, who banged on the table and called her “a mercenary.”

And recently, thanks to Carromero’s coming forward and Rosa María’s intervention, the human rights arm of the Organization of American States has formally asked Cuba for details of the car crash.

Yet the government has remained mum.

If the Cuban government is so certain the death was an accident caused by careless driving, why not give the grieving families the autopsy reports? Why not give them the accident report? Why not respond to the OAS? Why not prove their case before the UN instead of calling Rosa María names?

As I write on Tuesday about her path through Miami, Rosa Maria Payá reports via Twitter that she returned to Cuba without incident, despite the death threats made against her life.

“I’m with my family in Havana,” she tweets in Spanish. “Thanks to everyone.”

Her family — minus one, the father she lost but whose voice can still be heard through his valiant and eloquent daughter.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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