Freedom House Mourns the Death of Cuban Activist Payá
Freedom House mourns the death of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, one of the most notable political leaders of the Cuban opposition and a passionate activist for human rights and democratic change in Cuba as the leader of the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL). Payá, 60, died in a car crash in the eastern province of Granma. Cuban government officials have said the crash occurred when the driver lost control and hit a tree, killing Mr. Payá and a leading MCL youth activist, Harold Cepero Escalante, and injuring two passengers, one from Spain, the other from Sweden. Payá’s friends and family members, as well as members of the opposition and other activists, believe the car crash was not an accident and continue to search for more details.
An engineer and devout Catholic who was sent to a labor camp in the 1960s for his religious beliefs, Payá emerged as the leading advocate for peaceful democratic change in Cuba in 2002 after spearheading the Varela Project, a petition campaign calling for a referendum on one-party rule and guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly, among other human rights. Payá submitted more than 25,000 signatures—10,000 are required by the Cuban constitution to hold a referendum—but the petition was rejected by Castro's government as a U.S. plot to undermine his four-decade rule. The Cuban government then began its own referendum, which made the island’s socialist system “irrevocable.” Roughly 40 of Payá's grassroots activists, including his closest aides, were among the 75 arrested in a March 2003 crackdown on dissent widely known at the “Black Spring” and given jail sentences of up to 28 years. Despite a life of harassment and constant oppression, Payá continued to call for a national dialogue between Cubans, including members of the ruling Communist Party, to discuss a nonviolent transition to democracy.
In 2002 he received the European Union's top human rights award, the Sakharov Prize, named after the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. He was nominated on numerous occasions for the Nobel Peace Prize by former Czech President Vaclav Havel and other international supporters.
Freedom House consistently places Cuba among the world’s most repressive societies. Cuba is ranked Not Free in Freedom in the World 2012, Freedom House's survey of political rights and civil liberties, and Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2011. The island nation also received the third-lowest ranking in Freedom on the Net, a study of internet freedom in 37 countries released in 2011.
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Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.