HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban dissidents, religious leaders and foreign diplomats gathered at a Havana church on Monday to mourn the death of Oswaldo Paya Sardinas, who for decades fought one-party rule on the communist-run Caribbean island.
Paya, 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.
Some dissidents wore white T-shirts with a picture of Paya and dates of his birth and death. He will be buried Tuesday morning.
As his body entered the church the more than 400 people present applauded and shouted “Viva Paya 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).”
While small groups of government opponents are often at odds, including with Paya’s movement, on Monday they put their differences aside and mourned his death.
“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), a leading dissident organization.
“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.
A devout Catholic who was sent to a labor camp in the 1960s for his religious beliefs, Paya, 60, 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, but Paya emerged as the leading advocate of peaceful democratic change in Cuba.
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.
The circumstances surrounding the car crash remained hazy and in dispute on Monday.
A Cuban government statement, published by the official media, called the crash “lamentable,” said the driver lost control of the vehicle and hit a tree.
It was not immediately clear who was driving the car.
Members of Paya’s immediate family charged the car was driven off the road by another vehicle.
”We demand the Cuban military regime conduct a transparent investigation,” a statement issued by Paya’s organization said.
Various governments 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 statement.
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 nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize by former Czech President Vaclav Havel.
About 40 of Paya’s grass-roots activists, including his closest aides, were among 75 Castro critics arrested in a March 2003 crackdown on dissents and given jail sentences of up to 28 years. They were released in 2011.
Paya, a soft-spoken, unassuming medical equipment engineer, continued to call for a national dialogue between Cubans, including members of the ruling Communist Party, to discuss a non-violent transition to democracy.
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 exiles.
Additional reporting by Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta. Editing by David Adams, Tom Brown and Eric Beech