Cuban President Raul Castro claimed today that his regime is willing to engage the United States, but he launched a fierce attack on the island’s democratic opposition, a day after the funeral (above) of leading dissident Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas.
At the end of a Revolution Day ceremony marking the 59th anniversary of a failed uprising against a military barracks, AP reports, Castro grabbed the microphone for apparently impromptu remarks. He echoed previous statements that no topic is off-limits, including U.S. concerns about democracy, freedom of the press and human rights on the island, as long as it is a conversation between equals.
“Any day they want, the table is set. This has already been said through diplomatic channels,” Castro said. “If they want to talk, we will talk.”
Some analysts believe Castro’s tentative outreach confirms the failure of his efforts to secure support for the island’s failing economy during a recent world tour of autocratic regimes.
But he had “harsh words” for Cuba’s dissidents, suggesting that they were trying to provoke regime change.
“Some small factions are doing nothing less than trying to lay the groundwork and hoping that one day what happened in Libya will happen here, what they’re trying to make happen in Syria,” Castro said.
|The communist authorities’ arrest of more than 40 democracy advocates paying respects at the funeral of Payá (right) is “another sign of how entrenched repression against dissidents on the island remains,” says a leading human rights group.Former prisoner and dissident journalist Guillermo Fariñas was among those detained following Tuesday’s funeral mass in Havana.
“The authorities don’t want the public to know how many people were there and that we’re not afraid of them,” Fariñas told Amnesty after his release:
The journalist said the police pushed him to the ground outside the church, before forcing him to board the bus with around 20 other mourners, the majority of whom were also mistreated by police. Many shouted chants including “Long live Oswaldo!” and “freedom for Cuba!”
Elizardo Sánchez, President of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, told Amnesty how as many as 200 state security and police officers descended on the street outside the church in the Havana neighbourhood of El Cerro and began roughing up the mourners and bundling them into buses.
“Tuesday’s events follow the pattern of short-term detentions and imprisonments we’ve seen the Cuban authorities carry out time and again as a form of intimidation against dissidents and human rights activists,” Amnesty Cuba analyst Gerardo Ducos said.
Payá’s widow, Ofelia Acevedo, said a police officer told her he died from a head trauma in a single-car accident:
[But she] also said a friend in Sweden told her that a survivor of the crash had sent text messages from his cellular phone reporting the car crashed after it was repeatedly rammed by another vehicle. Payá and a member of his Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), Harold Cepero, died in the crash Sunday near the eastern city of Bayamo, while politicians Jens Aron Modig of Sweden and Angel Carromero of Spain suffered minor injuries. …..Neither of the Europeans have spoken publicly since the accident, but Spanish news media have reported that Carromero, who was at the wheel of the car, admitted to police that he missed a signal to slow down at a curve, lost control and crashed into a tree.
“Cuban dissidents, religious leaders and foreign diplomats gathered at a Havana church on Monday to mourn the death of Payá , who for decades fought one-party rule on the communist-run Caribbean island,” Reuters reports:
Payá , leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, and fellow dissident Harold Cepero died in a car crash in eastern Granma province on Sunday, the cause of which is under investigation.
The mood was somber on Monday afternoon at the modest El Salvador del Mundo Church in Cerro municipality, where the viewing of the 60-year-old civil rights activist was held and family and friends grieved. …. As his body entered the church the more than 400 people present applauded and shouted “Viva Payá Sardinas” and “Viva the Projecto Varela,” referring to his 2002 petition drive for a referendum on Cuba’s political system. They later broke into chants of “Libertad, Libertad (Freedom, Freedom).”
“What really distinguished him was that unlike almost all the others, he engaged in retail politics,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert with the Lexington Institute. “His Varela Project stands out as the only initiative of its time that enlisted citizen participation on a large scale. No one else did that, before or since.”
Payá ‘s relatives and supporters are calling for a transparent probe into the death of Cuba’s leading dissident.
“The circumstances of the accident are not at all clear,” the Christian Liberation Movement told AFP in an e-mail signed by spokesman Regis Iglesias.
The “Cuban junta” should carry out an open investigation, the group said.
Payá ‘s daughter Rosa Maria said the family did not believe the death was an accident, according to Miami-based Spanish-language newspaper El Nuevo Herald.
“According to information we’ve obtained from people traveling with him, there was a vehicle trying to force him off the road… We don’t think it was an accident,” she said.
The accident follows the suspicious death of another prominent Cuban dissident, Laura Pollan, founder of the Ladies in White, last October.
The regime targeted Payá because he “crossed a red line in challenging the government’s relations with the church, which had become a pillar of the government’s strategy of survival…. at a time when the regime, emboldened by the cardinal’s silence at the mass arrests during the pope’s visit to Cuba in March, was not about to tolerate criticism,” writes the National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman:
Visiting Bayamo with foreigners — the two survivors of the crash were fellow Catholics from Spain and Sweden — crossed another red line. The city is the center of the cholera outbreak in the eastern part of Cuba, and for the regime, the disease is not just a medical problem but also an economic and political threat. The leakage of information about the outbreak threatens travel to Cuba and tourism, major sources of hard currency, which the regime desperately needs.
The spread of the disease also challenges Cuba’s self-image as a medical superpower and could arouse anger in citizens who believe that sending Cuban doctors to Venezuela and other countries detracts from the care they receive at home. The fact that Bayamo has experienced labor unrest the past two years and was a rebel stronghold during Cuba’s war of independence against Spain and the uprising against Batista further arouses the regime’s anxiety.
“In the coming days, more facts are likely to emerge about Payá’s death,” says Gershman. “As the United States and other democratic governments mourn Payá, it is essential that they — and world opinion — be alert to the dangers faced by democrats in Cuba.”
Payá ’s fellow dissidents also suspect foul play.
“He had said they were going to kill him. And this was the third accident he had this year,” charged Martha Beatriz Roque, a well known dissident economist.
“Something has got to be done urgently so that this does not go any further,” said Roque, one of 75 dissidents jailed after the 2003 Black Spring crackdown.
“We are all in danger,” said Roque.
At a funeral mass attended by hundreds of people in Havana, Payá ‘s son, Oswaldo, told the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford, that his father had received many death threats and that the car had been pushed off the road deliberately.
Some of Cuba’s main human rights campaigners attended the ceremony at San Salvador catholic church. They vowed to continue fighting for democracy on the communist island.
Internationally celebrated as the founder of the Varela Project, a petition to demand a referendum on constitutional reform guaranteeing civil liberties, Payá was sent to a labor camp in 1969 as punishment for his activism.
His death leaves a serious void in dissident ranks, say Cuban democrats.
“This is a big blow to Cuba’s future … I think a man who was indispensable for Cuba’s transition has died,” dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez told Reuters.
“Without Oswaldo Payá, the island is more of an orphan now,” she wrote on her Twitter account, criticizing the regime’s depiction of Payá and its response to his death. “A system that gives no respect to a dead political opponent shows how low it is morally.”
“It is a terrible blow, but we will continue to fight for what he stood for … freedom and democracy for the Cuban people,” said Berta Solar, leader of the Damas en Blanco (Ladies in White) dissident group.
The Obama administration described Payá as a “tireless champion” in “the nonviolent struggle for freedom and democratic reform in Cuba.”
“The President’s thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Oswaldo Payá , a tireless champion for greater civic and human rights in Cuba,” the White House said in a statement.
“Cuba has lost one of its most important voices of political dissent and strongest proponents of fundamental freedoms for the people of his homeland,” said Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department.
The Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy was “shocked and saddened” to learn of Payá ’s death, and extended its deepest sympathy to the Payá family and to the broader family of Cuban democratic activists.
“He was a seminal leader of the Cuban struggle for freedom and independence,” said NED president Carl Gershman. “He worked to create a civic space for the Cuban people. He believed in working peacefully for change and in forgiveness and reconciliation. For a regime that believes in hatred and revenge, he was a threat.”
He noted that the incident follows the death last October of Laura Pollan, the leader of the Ladies in White, also under suspicious circumstances.
“The demand by the Christian Liberation Movement that the government conduct a transparent investigation is essential, though suspicions will persist that Payá was a martyr for freedom and democracy,” said Gershman.
When NED honored five Cuban activists, three of whom were in prison, with its 2009 Democracy Award, Payá sent a message, which was read to the assembled guests.
“Why are they imprisoned?” asked Payá , referring to the honorees and all Cuban prisoners of conscience. “For peacefully defending and promoting the rights of all Cubans; for fearlessly denouncing violations of these rights; and for writing and speaking the truth, which in Cuba is itself imprisoned.”
Payá concluded, “If you wish to support our people, support with your voice and with your heart the path of peace and reconciliation that leads us unmistakably to freedom and to the rights that we Cubans want for ourselves.”
In January 2012, Payá sent a video message to a memorial gathering honoring former Czech president Vaclav Havel, a longtime supporter of Payá . Payá spoke about how the example of Havel and the Velvet Revolution in 1989 had inspired him and others in Cuba to continue their struggle to gain power for the powerless and freedom for Cuba.
Havel twice nominated Payá for the Nobel Peace Prize and Forum 2000, the organization he initiated, noted that Payá had “spent decades” confronting the communist regime of Fidel and Raul Castro.
“We would like to sincerely express condolences and support to the whole family,” said Forum 2000:
Forum 2000 invited Payá regularly to its annual conferences. However, he never received a permit from the Cuban government to leave the country.
In 1999 Payá was awarded the Homo Homini prize by the Czech People in Need group. He visited the Czech Republic in January 2003 and met Havel.
In September 2002, Payá received the National Democratic Institute’s 15th Annual W. Averell Harriman award for his contribution to the promotion of democracy and human rights.
“Oswaldo was an inspiration to his fellow Cubans and to champions of democracy worldwide,” said NDI Chairman Madeleine K. Albright. “Despite the many pressures he and his family were subjected to, he never wavered in his conviction that Cubans had the same democratic rights as other people in Latin America and around the world.”
“With a quiet strength grounded in his faith, Payá embraced democracy at a young age,” said NDI President Kenneth Wollack.
The Varela Project “is still widely viewed as one of the most courageous acts of public support demanding basic freedoms in Cuba,” says the International Republican Institute, noting that Payá’s efforts were recognized by the European Parliament which awarded him the in 2002 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
In his acceptance speech, Payá said the prize was “for all Cubans, because I believe that, in awarding it, Europe wishes to say to them: ‘You, too, are entitled to rights.’ ”
“Sadly, the Castro regime’s tight control over media and its blanket suppression of dissent prevented many Cubans from ever learning more about Payá or his work, and his dedication to bringing freedom to Cuba,” IRI notes.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called Payá ”one of many heroes on the island who has exposed the myths and failures of the Cuban Revolution and challenged its habitual violation of human rights. As we try to learn more about the circumstances of Payá ‘s death, it is critically important that the international community join those inside Cuba in pressuring the regime to be forthcoming with the truth,” he said in a statement. “It’s important that anyone with knowledge about this car crash be protected and allowed to share what they know.”
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Cuban-American head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, lamented Payá ‘s death as “an overwhelming loss to the Cuban people and their struggle for democracy.”
Payá and his fellow pro-democracy dissidents “had been harassed by Cuban state security authorities for decades,” she said.
Expressions of sympathy for the Payá family and remembrances of his life may be recorded on the NDI website here and will be forwarded to his family and supporters.