Payá, who dedicated his life to promoting human rights and democratic governance in Cuba, died along with his colleague, advocate Harold Cepero. Angel Carromero and Jens Aron Modig, European politicians who were visiting Cuba to support Payá's efforts, survived the crash.
While state press and Cuban officials [es] reported that Carromero, who was at the wheel, lost control of the car and hit a tree, rumors of a second car began to circulate. Though the two Europeans survived the crash, weeks passed before either survivor gave an account of the accident. Having endured decades of harassment and threats on her father’s life, Payá’s daughter Rosa Maria publicly stated that she suspected foul play. Cuban authorities charged Carromero with vehicular manslaughter; he was put on trial in October, found guilty, and sentenced to four years in prison. Carromero also delivered a statement, before the press, confirming authorities’ version of the story.
Given that the passengers killed in the accident were in the back seat of the car, the claim that the car crashed into a tree seems unlikely.
This month, Angel Carromero, who served jail time in Cuba and was then (with assistance from the Spanish government) granted permission to complete his sentence in Spain, gave an interview to The Washington Post. The newspaper’s website does not specify who conducted the interview.
In this new account of the accident and its aftermath, Carromero describes being followed by a series of strange cars, the last of which crashed into the back of the car, killing Payá and Cepero, who were riding in the backseat. Carromero recalls being taken to a hospital and later asked to sign the “official” account of the accident and recite the account before members of the press.
Carromero says that military officers intimidated him, suggesting that he would face further trouble if he did not stick to the official version of the story.
One of them told me that what I had told them had not happened and that I should be careful, that depending on what I said things could go very well or very badly for me.
He also describes meager prison conditions and claims that while he was in the hospital, personnel unnecessarily sedated him. He believes this may have caused his memory of the incident to lapse.
Phil Peters, US-Cuba policy expert and author of The Cuban Triangle, is doubtful that those following the case will find Carromero’s account credible:
…[Carromero’s] conduct to date has frustrated those that most want to pin Paya’s death on the Cuban government, and the presentation of the case – slow, late, and piecemeal, with Modig consistently useless – has limited its impact. My strong guess is that skeptics of both accounts are not going to get satisfaction.
Carromero claims that when they saw a vehicle following them, Paya and Cepero said it was “from ‘la comunista.’” Peters notes that this doesn't sound right — Cubans do not colloquially refer to authorities this way. “La comunista” would be a pretty general way to refer to just about anyone in Cuba, a Communist country.
Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo says he has no reason to believe Carromero. Spanish daily El Pais notes that the Spanish government has handled the case delicately, likely in the interest of preserving Cuba-Spain relations and protecting other Spanish citizens who are awaiting trial in Cuba.
Havana Times reports that García-Margallo has said that Carromero should present this information before the court. At his trial, Carromero gave what he now claims was a false description of the accident.
Havana Times blogger Harold Dilla also expressed skepticism about Carromero’s account. He noted that people on all sides of the incident seem to have given accounts and spread information that is not entirely truthful– the lack of impartial, thorough reporting on the incident has made the situation all the worse. Dilla wrote,
The unfortunate death of Oswaldo Paya is another example of the morbidities that come with the lack of information openness in Cuba and the lack of independent response channels.
Although the Cuban government acted to provide rapid and technically supported information on the facts of the incident, I don’t think it was sufficient for anyone, if we consider that Paya was always considered an enemy and harassed accordingly.
Dilla also supported the Paya family’s request for an independent investigation of the case and argued that “the Cuban government should, in the name of decency, be obligated to allow that.”
Many have called for an independent investigation of the accident; the Payá family has sought assistance on the matter from the United Nations. But even this may be a challenge. Agustín López casts doubt [es] on the efficacy of such an effort
¿Qué tribunal internacional tendrá la suficiente potestad para realizar una investigación imparcial y por qué métodos obtendrán pruebas periciales que no sean fraudulentas? ¿Se dignara algún cubano que conozca la verdad a arriesgar la vida en una transparente declaración?
What international court will have sufficient power to conduct an impartial investigation and what methods will be used to obtain credible evidence that will not be fraudulent? Will any Cuban who knows the truth to deign to risk his or her life by making a transparent statement?
In the wake of the accident, a diverse range of Cuban voices — even those who didn’t agree with Payá — expressed appreciation for his efforts to push for reform on the island. Payá was internationally recognized as one of Cuba's most pragmatic, forward-thinking advocates for freedom of expression, freedom of association, and other fundamental rights on the island. For Payá's family and those who supported his work, it is unfortunate that his death has been marked on all sides by layers of misinformation and mistrust.