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Dissident's Death Stirs A Drama In Cuba

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Dissident's Death Stirs A Drama In Cuba

Latin America

Dissident's Death Stirs A Drama In Cuba

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Cuban dissidents and Castro opponents around the world are mourning the death of Oswaldo Paya. The political activist was killed in Cuba in a single-vehicle car crash late last month. Paya's family and others have raised suspicions that the Cuban government had a role in his death. At the center of the case are two European activists who were in the car with Paya and survived the crash.

From Havana, Nick Miroff has our story.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: The two 27-year-olds met through Facebook. Jens Aron Modig, chairman of the youth wing of Sweden's center-right Christian Democratic Party, wanted to travel to Cuba to support fellow Christian Democrats there. He was put in touch with a young leader of Spain's conservative Popular Party, Angel Carromero. Soon after arriving in Havana on tourist visas, they rented a car and set out with Paya to meet other dissidents across the island. Carromero was driving at the time of the crash.

ANGEL CARROMERO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: This is a clip broadcast on Cuban state television of Carromero describing the accident, with images of their crumpled Hyundai. The young Spaniard says he came up suddenly on an unpaved stretch of highway, hit the brakes and lost control. The car careened sideways, slamming into a tree along the shoulder. Paya was seated in the back seat on the driver's side and took the impact directly. He was killed instantly.

Another Cuban dissident riding in the back, Harold Cepero, died later of his injuries, but the two Europeans wore seat belts and weren't seriously hurt.

CARROMERO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: I lost control of the car, Carromero says, and that's the last thing I remember.

Carromero woke up in a Cuban nightmare, facing possible charges of vehicular manslaughter with up to 10 years in prison. But much of the Cuban government's focus since the crash has centered on Modig, the Swede. Cuban authorities let him return home. But before he left, he told state television he'd come to Cuba with $5,000 for the dissidents. It may not be a huge amount of money, but its valuable propaganda for Cuban authorities who depict all Castro opponents as paid lackeys of foreign powers.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Government broadcasts like this one have probably mentioned Paya's name more in the past two weeks than in his 30-plus years of peaceful activism in Cuba. He was best known for leading a petition campaign a decade ago that gathered 15,000 signatures on the island in favor of democratic reforms. The European Parliament awarded Paya its top human rights prize in 2002. Since then he has been less visible among the different groups of dissidents. They typically face harassment or jail here, not outright assassination.

But Paya's widow, Ofelia Acevedo, suspects the crash was no accident.

OFELIA ACEVEDO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: I'm asking to be able to speak with the Spaniard, Acevedo says. I want a clear explanation of what really happened. I don't know if we'll ever get the truth, she says, but I don't believe the government's version.

Castro opponents here and abroad allege another car was involved, or that vehicle was run off the road. But the European survivors and other witnesses say it was an accident. In his statement on Cuban television, the jailed Spanish activist, Carromero, urged the world to focus instead on getting me out of here.

Cuban rights advocate Elizardo Sanchez said members of his group visited the crash site and saw no sign of foul play. But the doubts won't be settled until both Europeans can speak freely outside of Cuba, he says.

ELIZARDO SANCHEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Everything points to it being an unfortunate accident, Sanchez says, but we won't really know until we get their testimony. At the same time, the communist government is definitely to blame for the lack of proper signage on its poorly-maintained roads, he says.

That ultimately could help Carromero avoid a long prison sentence in Cuba. Investigators say he was traveling at over 70 miles per hour, well above the limit, at the time of the crash. Spanish newspapers have also reported Carromero arrived in Cuba just before his driver's license was revoked in Spain, having accumulated 45 traffic fines since March 2010, including several speeding tickets.

As for Modig, he's now back in Sweden, but he says he was sleeping at the time of the accident and remembers nothing. He faced several days of questioning in Cuba before he was allowed to leave, and said Cuban investigators were far more interested in his political activities than the crash.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana

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