* Paya died in car crash on Sunday
* Diplomats say car hit pothole - no foul play suspected
* Some dissidents detained at funeral
By Rosa Tania Valdes
HAVANA, JULY 24,Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega paid
tribute to the "clear political vocation" and religious faith of
leading dissident Oswaldo Paya at his crowded funeral on
Tuesday, days after the prominent anti-communist activist died
in a car crash.
Family members have questioned the circumstances of Sunday's
crash on a badly potholed road in eastern Cuba, alleging
possible foul play by government agents. But diplomats say they
believe it was a genuine accident and it appeared the car was
Paya, the 60-year-old leader of the Christian Liberation
Movement, and fellow dissident Harold Cepero, died after the
rental car they were traveling in, accompanied by two European
politicians, hit a tree in eastern Granma province, according to
the government. The cause of the crash is officially under
“"Oswaldo had a clear political vocation, and this, like a
good Christian, did not take him from his faith and religious
duties," Ortega told the packed memorial Mass at a church in the
Havana suburb of Cerro, where the civil rights activist lived.
"“Quite the contrary, he always looked to his faith for
inspiration in his political activity," Ortega said.
Ortega announced that Pope Benedict XVI had sent a message
of condolence to the family.
A devout Catholic who was sent to a labor camp in the 1960s
for his religious beliefs, Paya overcame intimidation and
harassment to build Cuba's first nationwide opposition
initiative, the Varela Project, which gathered 25,000 signatures
for a referendum on one-party rule.
The petition drive was rejected by the government in 2002,
but Paya emerged as the leading advocate of peaceful democratic
change in Cuba.
As hundreds of activists, diplomats and friends quietly left
the church to accompany Paya's family to Havana's Colon
cemetery, dozens of dissidents chanting "“freedom, freedom,"
were herded onto a bus by police and driven away, the only
It was not immediately clear what happened to the detainees,
though usually they are quickly released without charges.
SPANIARD HELD IN CRASH
Swedish politician Aron Modig, chairman of the Christian
Democrats' youth wing, and Spaniard Angel Carromero Barrios,
vice president of the ruling Popular Party's "“New Generations"
movement, who were traveling with Paya, suffered minor injuries
and were released from hospital on Monday.
The two men were not immediately available for comment.
Members of Paya's immediate family have charged the car was
repeatedly rammed and then forced off the road by another
“"We have serious doubts that it was an accident," Rosa
Maria Paya, one of the activist's three daughters, told Reuters.
"“But we do not know for sure what happened," she added.
European diplomats said that while Modig had returned to
Havana and was free to fly home, Carromero, who was driving the
vehicle, remained in Granma as of Monday night, and faced
possible charges for reckless driving and involuntary
The diplomats, who asked not to be identified, said it
appeared the vehicle, traveling at well above the speed limit,
hit a large pot hole, veered off the road and hit a tree.
The diplomats said that so far there was no evidence to back
up the allegations by Paya's daughter.
The diplomats said the Cuban government had met with both
country's ambassadors and expressed a desire to work out the
ADVOCATE OF RECONCILIATION AND DIALOGUE
Paya was a unique voice in Cuba's dissident movement and his
death leaves "a very large gap," said Philip Peters, a Cuba
expert with the Lexington Institute, a conservative policy
research group in Virginia.
"Unlike others in the dissident movement he engaged in
retail politics. His Varela Project enlisted citizen
participation and connected with many thousands of Cubans.
That's what set him apart."
Paya was also controversial in the dissident movement
because he supported dialogue and reconciliation with the Cuban
government, while opposing the U.S. economic embargo against
A soft-spoken, unassuming medical equipment engineer, Paya
was awarded the European Union's top human rights award in 2002,
the Sakharov Prize, named after the late Soviet dissident Andrei
Sakharov. He was also nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize
by former Czech President Vaclav Havel.
Cuba's numerous dissident groups are often at odds with each
other and in many cases have been critical of Cardinal Ortega's
ongoing dialogue with President Raul Castro after he replaced
his ailing brother Fidel in 2008 and initiated a series of
economic and social reforms.
But those differences were put aside on Tuesday to pay
homage to a man all praised for his ethics and courage.
Castro, Ortega and the Council of Bishops began the dialogue
two years ago that led to the release of 130 political
prisoners, more space for the church to carry out its mission
and Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the island in March.
Paya applauded those successes, but he was highly critical
of the church's support of Castro's efforts to reform the
communist system. He repeatedly charged his movement, and other
grass-roots activists with similar views, were being
marginalized by Cuba's bishops.
He was especially critical of the pope's decision not to
meet with dissidents during his March visit.
He also had a strong following among Cuban exiles in the
United States and elsewhere. In 2003, he visited the United
States, where he was received by then-Secretary of State Colin
Powell, before spending several days in Miami meeting with Cuban
Various governments and personalities sent their condolences
to Paya's family and the internal opposition in Cuba for the
loss, including the White House.
“"The president's thoughts and prayers are with the family
and friends of Oswaldo Paya, a tireless champion for greater
civic and human rights in Cuba," the White House said in a