The freedom fighter died in a car accident along with the vehicle’s driver in the eastern city of Bamayo on July 22. It’s believed another vehicle may have been involved, but the cause of the accident remains under investigation.
Payá had long spoken out against the Castro regime and the communist authoritarianism it imposed on the Cuban people. Even as a young teenager, he refused to accept Marxist ideology despite the constant threat of imprisonment or other severe government sanctions looming over his head.
Payá’s efforts in bringing democracy and freedom to the island have earned him international fame. He has been awarded the EU’s top human rights prize and was openly praised for his efforts by former President Jimmy Carter during a 2002 speech at Cuba’s Havana University.
Funeral attendees included Miriam Leyva, a founding member of the Ladies in White, who told the press that Payá “was a person sincerely committed to achieving the best for the Cuban people.”
Indeed, Payá headed the “Varela Project,” so named after Felix Varela, a Cuban religious figure who fought for the abolition of slavery on the island in the early 1800s. The Varela project proposed reforming Cuba using its own legal institutions, namely article 88 of the Cuban constitution.
According to this article, if a proposed amendment receives 10,000 valid Cuban signatures, it must be discussed in the parliament. Despite a mass of opposition from forces within the Cuban government, Payá obtained the requisite number of signatures for an amendment that included allowing for broader protection of an individual’s fundamental rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of association, and the release of political prisoners.
The Castro regime’s response to Payá’s audacity was marked by denunciations that the Varela Project was a U.S.-backed manipulation of Cuba’s laws and constitution. The now infamous Cuban “Black Spring” of 2003 also followed, resulting in the arrests of 75 peaceful dissidents.
Human Rights Watch observed that Payá “laid bare the hostility of the Castro government toward calls for basic freedoms.” Sadly, at Payá’s funeral on July 24, Cuban police arrested several dissidents.
The struggle for Cuban freedom clearly continues—minus one of its historic leaders.
Yonathan Amselem is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm.