Spaniard convicted in death of Cuban activist Payá recounts ordeal in visit to Miami

Angel Carromero holds up photographs of the car in which Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya was killed in a crash.
Angel Carromero holds up photographs of the car in which Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya was killed in a crash. EL NUEVO HERALD STAFF

Angel Carromero was emphatic during his visit to Miami on Friday: “What happened on July 22 wasn’t an accident, it was an assault,” he said.

The young Spanish lawyer was sentenced to four years in jail in the deaths of opposition figures Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero in a car crash near the Cuban city of Bayamo on July 22, 2012. His fate was decided in a Cuban courtroom because of his alleged role as the driver of the car in which they traveled en route to Santiago de Cuba. Although Cuba insisted the wreck was a car accident, others said State Security agents had been following the car and were responsible.

Carromero was found guilty in a trial he describes as full of contradictions, in his book Death under Suspicion, which he is currently promoting in the United States after obtaining a special permit to do so. Cuba eventually released Carromero to Spain to serve out his term.

Another key witness in the case, Jens Aron Modig continues to remain quiet. The Swedish delegate was also traveling in the car with Carromero but was quickly repatriated to his homeland due to a supposed pact of silence.

However, Carromero decided to speak up a few months after returning to Spain.

On Friday afternoon, he attended a Miami Herald editorial board meeting and displayed a multitude of video stills from footage belonging to the Cuban government. Carromero explained that this footage was used by Cuban authorities to produce a video aimed at convincing the public that an accident provoked by him was the true cause behind the death of one of the main leaders of the Cuban opposition.

In the photos, which were also presented at his trial in Cuba, it can be clearly seem that the details of the car and location of the accident change inexplicably. In one set of photos, the crashed car has a bumper on it; in another it doesn’t. The car in the images is sometimes a blue Hyundai on grass; in others, it is on sand or near a small river.

Carromero, who is an advisor of Madrid’s City Council and the director of the New Generations of the Popular Party in Madrid, pinpointed other inconsistencies in the case.

The three witnesses who testified, despite remembering exactly at which speed the car was traveling, couldn’t, however, specify who took out the four people who had been inside the car. They also didn’t remember the white car that Carromero claims almost “appeared out of thin air” and took him to a hospital in Bayamo, which was soon after “militarized.”

He also remembers that in the Cuban video in which he is shown incriminating himself he has his shirt buttoned in some takes and unbuttoned in others, something he did to prove that the video was staged and not a spontaneous confession.

Carromero claimed to speak with a “clear conscience” about the trial, among other topics. Here are some questions and answers Friday.

What arguments were presented at trial to sentence you?

The formula used to sentence me and to calculate the speed at which the car supposedly traveled has no validity, it's the one of rectilinear motion uniformly accelerated.

This movement doesn't exist and doesn’t account for the acceleration made when you brake, the friction. ..l The international experts contacted by my lawyers broke all of this down. Experts from the CUJAE (Cuba’s University of Engineering) said it was nonsense.

Did those experts go to the trial?

In Cuba, if they accuse you, you’re sentenced. Cuban legislation doesn’t allow for experts to come and testify. This doesn't happen in countries which are not dictatorships.

Did you have access to documents relating to your case?

I never saw the report of my case. They didn't give my defense lawyer a copy. The lawyers has to travel from Havana to Bayamo to transcribe 800 documents by hand. Why didn't they give them a copy the way it's done in all cases? Because they knew that when they copied it that the documents would make it out of Cuba and the case would be read. The drawings of the supposed tests which they had done to me to accuse me had to be done by hand too, like children. You can laugh, but it's not a joke.

When did you send that text message stating, “Help! We're surrounded by military men”?

They let us keep our cellphones at the beginning of our stay in the hospital in Bayamo but later on they took them from us. I sent that text when I was in my hospital bed surrounded by military men. In that moment, they had obligated me to change my version of the story and were filming me with a handycam and I knew it was going to end badly.

The first thing he said was that they had run us off the road and had hit us. This made them nervous, and they hit me. Later on a Cuban official who introduced himself as an expert told me the version that I was to repeat: that I pressed the brake pedal and “fell in an embankment.” In Spain this has another meaning and the phrasing of the words is different too.

Was Modig sleeping when the accident happened as he has alleged in interviews?

There were times when he was asleep but he was the copilot. If he chose to remain quiet and turn the page, well I don't share in that sentiment. I respect it but I've chosen a more complicated road and one with worse consequences for me but I couldn't stay silent.

Has it been a long time since you last spoke to him?

Yes. The last time he came to Spain he simply told me he didn't remember anything.

How did you find out about the deaths of Payá and Cepero?

I asked in the hospital and in the interrogation in Bayamo they told me about it again.

At what speed where you traveling when all this happened?

Well, I don't remember the speed, but whoever has been in Cuba knows that on the main highway, even if you want to, you can't go too fast because it's full of potholes. Also it was a rental car and didn't work so well. I was with Rosa Maria [Payá] yesterday and we remembered that the day before the trip we were about to cancel it because the car didn't accelerate well.

At the time you traveled to Cuba was your driver's license in good standing?

Yes. Not even my family or my friends could defend me in Spain because otherwise I wouldn't have been able to return. The leftist party and the Cuban government took advantage of that silence to try to destroy my credibility. So, I took the heat from the media on my own.

In the book you're very blunt about why you filmed those videos in which you take the blame ...

There's something very clear here, I was surrounded by soldiers, in a loathsome dungeon-like cell without access to lawyers and without being able to call anybody. I was alone and at the mercy of what the soldiers wanted to do to me. This is in Cuba, not a country with rights, and so they told me that if I collaborate, that they'll let me go.

What were you afraid of the most?

Of them killing me. They can do with you whatever they want. You have no cellphone, no outside contact, you're in a dictatorship. It was collaborate and do what I'm told or I wouldn't be here with you today. It's like a video from al-Qaida, my face was swollen and I could barely speak. ...

In which jails were you?

I was in Bayamo and later I was moved to Cien and Aldabo, it's an instructional jail. They stick you in there until you confess, and if not, they won't let you out. I was there until November in a cell in which they'd take me out once a day every two or three weeks. It was psychologically trying and I clung on to the fact that I wanted to go back and that if I did, I wanted to be well and I did it.

What did you do in jail?

Think. Think about my family and friends. Try to keep feeling alive, part of my life. Think about what I'd be doing if I was with my loved ones. I tried to not let the isolation they imposed on me affect me. I don't know if it's mental tricks or what but it helped me.

Did councilmen come see you at your jail cell?

Of course, they didn't let me out but a slew of military men passed by there. They talked to me and told me that Cuba was gorgeous. Of course, I had to act docile towards them because they were my captors and the ones who brought me food. It's difficult. I also fought with myself over that.

But on trial, despite having been docile, you decided to say you were innocent.

Of course, because the regime created a friction and did so in such a bad way that there were elements to defend myself from their version of the facts. My lawyers told me to declare myself innocent because even with their version they had proof to show that I was innocent. It was also an act of rebellion on my part, even though later I regretted it because an official threatened me. It's complicated to act without consulting anyone. One day they told me that I hadn't support from my party and my government. I lived in a contradiction, without knowing, and making decisions blindly is very hard.

When did you have that initial contact with the Spanish embassy?

When I was in Bayamo, the Swedish ambassador and the auxiliary consul from Spain. The ambassador manages to have her national sent home with her and the Spanish consulate just asks me how I'm doing and doesn't provide me with any further instruction.

It's also strange that they sent an auxiliary consul.

They told me that they tried to treat it as a case between consulates, but from that first moment, they didn't send an ambassador and only sent an auxiliary consul.

Why did the National Court in Spain disregard a petition to investigate the death of Oswaldo Payá, who was a Spanish citizen?

My return to Spain wasn't free. The Cuban government isn't stupid and got a lot out of my return. One of the conditions they put was that the Spanish government has to accept the validity of my sentence and can't revise my case. This was part of a prisoner extradition treaty that both governments signed.

Can Spanish authorities pardon you?

Yes, but they have to communicate that to Cuba first.