Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas , one of the most respected names in the Cuban dissident movement and a tireless crusader for civil society, was killed in a car crash Sunday afternoon in eastern Cuba.
Rosa María Payá, his daughter, told CNN en Español that Payá was traveling near Bayamo, the capital city of Granma province, with a fellow dissident, Harold Cepero, when their car was struck by another vehicle. “There was a car trying to take them off the road, crashing into them at every moment. So we think it’s not an accident,’’ she told CNN en Español. “They wanted to do harm and they ended up killing my father.”
The Cuban Foreign Ministry’s confirmed the death at 1:50 p.m. local time and said the crash occurred in La Gavina, about 14 miles from Bayamo.
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But a foreign ministry spokesman told the Spanish news agency EFE that Payá’s rented car “lost control and smashed against a tree, according to eyewitnesses.’’ The spokesman said Cepero, a native of Ciego de Avila, was also killed.
Payá’s official website said that two other men, whom it did not identify, were traveling with him.
Payá, 60, a Catholic layman, headed the Christian Liberation Movement, and was best known for his role in organizing the Varela Project, a signature gathering campaign in support of a referendum on laws to guarantee freedom of speech and other civil rights.
He delivered the first group of signatures to the National Assemby, Cuba’s parliament in 2002. Before the petition drive was over, there were more than 25,000 names on the petition.
Many of the 75 dissidents who were jailed during the 2003 crackdown known as Cuba’s “Black Spring’’ were involved with the Varela Project, which took its name from Rev. Félix Varela, a priest revered for his role in Cuba’s independence fight against Spain.
Although authorities ignored the Varela Project petitions, the government did launch its own petition drive that established the socialist system as “irrevocable’’ in the Cuban constitution.
Nevertheless, Payá continued his efforts at trying to mobilize Cubans to demand their human rights. The same spirit guided him when he declared himself a candidate for the National Assembly in 1992 — the first time a dissident had publicly expressed a desire to run for such an office during the Castro regime.
“I believe that he will now be able to intercede for all the children of Cuba who in one form or another lived in the absence of freedom. This is a great loss for the universal church because he was a champion of human rights and human dignity,’’ said Fernando Heria, pastor at St. Brendan’s Church in Westchester.
A Mass in Payá’s honor is scheduled for 8 p.m. Tuesday at Ermita de la Caridad, known as the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity. It will be celebrated by Father José Luis Menendez, pastor of Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Miami.
Payá won the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize in 2002 for his efforts and was nominated more than once for the Nobel Peace Prize.
He was a man who answered to his conscience. He did not accept U.S. funds to support his work, opposed the U.S. embargo against Cuba, and had a reputation of being somewhat aloof from other dissidents.
Frank Calzon, director of the Center for a Free Cuba, said he met Payá when he visited Washington.
“He was a unique human being. His killing, there is no other way of explaining it, is a major setback for those who would like to see democracy and human rights in Cuba but I’m sure the Cuban people will overcome the feeling of pain that we suffer and continue to work for what he worked for all his life,” said Calzon.
As word of Payá’s death spread, others also eulogized him.
‘MAN OF PEACE’
“Payá was a man of peace and strong Catholic faith and because of this he was a threat to the Castro dictatorship,’’ said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami. “His death leaves a void that will be tough to fill. Payá will be remembered for his unflinching stance against the Castro tyranny and for his commitment to a free Cuba.”
Juan J. Sosa, the pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Miami Beach, attended the Marist Brothers School with him in Havana.
“I am sorry to hear of his tragic, accidental passing, but I give thanks to God for his heroic stand in the island, as he used the window provided by the Constitution of Cuba to [try to] amend it through the ‘Project Varela,’ said Sosa “He certainly paved the way for many others to speak out and to be counted in search of an authentic democratic process in a free society...
“I was able to meet him again, after a few decades, in the late ’80s when his role as a pacifist dissident was surfacing,’’ said Sosa. “Later on, in 2001, when I was invited to conduct a one-week Liturgy Workshop in Havana, he attended a daily Mass I celebrated at our mutual home parish, El Salvador, in the neighborhood known as El Cerro.”
Payá was one of four brothers and one sister. An engineer by training, he was employed at a state enterprise that deals with surgical equipment.
He was married and had three children.
Miami Herald writer Daniela Guzman also contributed to this report.
A previous version of this article had an incorrect time for the Mass scheduled at Ermita de la Caridad.