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An accident or a plot? Deaths of Cuban dissidents raises questions.

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• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, thehavananote.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

More than a week after a traffic accident in which Cuban dissidents Oswaldo Paya and fellow Cuban dissident Harold Cepero lost their lives, there’s controversy about what exactly caused the accident. Despite Cuban government reports, and now publicly available comments from the two survivors of the crash that it was nothing more than an accident, Mr. Paya’s family believes someone ran the car off the road. The family has reported that contacts abroad told them that the two Europeans in the car that day, Aron Modig of Sweden and Angel Carromero of Spain, sent text messages indicating they believed they were being followed (and even that one or both texted that a car had run them off the road). 

I wouldn’t be surprised if they were trailed. Mr. Modig and Mr. Carromero entered Cuba on tourist visas and then hooked up with one of the best known dissidents on the island. But was Paya a large enough threat that the Cuban government wanted to kill him?

While he remained a central or at least iconic opposition figure in the minds of international media and activists, Paya had had a lower profile on the island in recent years, after his movement delivered more than 25,000 signatures to the Cuban National Assembly and many of his regional organizers were imprisoned with dozens of others (accused of being backed by the US).  Still, Paya’s family reports that government-backed harassment had stepped up recently, including another car accident several weeks ago, once Paya began to criticize Cardinal Jaime Ortega for not being forceful enough in his dealings with the Cuban government. But, if the Cuban Ministry of Interior really decided to take out Paya, why do it with two Europeans – who survived the crash and could tell the world – in the car with him? 

Modig and Carromero have each made public statements about the crash now, and each has rejected that the crash was anything but an accident. Carromero has assumed responsibility for the crash (and is currently being held in jail), and says he lost control of the car when it hit a pothole. (If you’ve ever seen a Cuban pothole, you realize this is quite plausible.) Carromero had this to say:

“I ask the international community to please focus on getting me out of here and not use a traffic accident, which could have happened to anyone, for political purposes.”

Modig, who answered questions for the press (the director of the International Press Center ran the briefing beside him in this video) says he remembers nothing out of the ordinary, and says it was an accident (though the Cuban Ministry of the Interior reported that he was sleeping when the incident occurred). Modig also elaborated on his objectives and activities – to deliver several thousand euros to Paya and to enlist his daughter in the creation of a new youth-focused dissident group). He apologized for these activities and said that he now understands that they are illegal in Cuba.  We also learn from the video that Modig met with NDI and IRI  (National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, each of which are USAID grantees) contacts in Georgia just before traveling to Cuba, and that Cuba is the only country in which Modig's party has undertaken such activities as delivering funds to dissidents.

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Those who believe the conspiracy theory don’t believe either of the foreigners in the case can speak freely about what happened. One exception is Elizardo Sanchez, a former political prisoner and oft-cited tracker of political prisoner cases, who sent contacts to investigate the incident. Mr. Sanchez “ruled out any conspiracy” early on, but notes that only outside of Cuba will the two foreigners’ stories be complete. The skeptics see a neat solution in Carromerro being charged with vehicular manslaughter (and if convicted he would likely be sentenced to one more or years in a Cuban prison) and Modig presumably realizing it’s best to say whatever gets him out of Cuba, or else he could find himself in the same predicament as an American, Alan Gross, currently serving out a 15 year sentence on the island.  Gross made numerous trips to Cuba in 2009 on tourist visas to deliver BGANs and activate several wifi-networks, including a special SIM card (available only to US defense and intelligence agencies) to hide the networks' satellite signals from Cuban authorities. 

Modig has now returned home to Sweden, so perhaps there is more to come on this story. It certainly raises plenty of other questions, starting with the legitimacy of Cuban opposition figures financed from abroad (Paya made a point of rejecting US funds) and the practicable strategies of international human rights and solidarity groups going forward. In the meantime, the Cuban government is offering answers of its own, by releasing new evidence of foreign tampering in Cuban affairs it had apparently held back, and, in the wake of Modig's confession, the Communist Party Daily, Granma, issued a scathing editorial against dissidents: "They are vulgar agents paid, supplied and instructed by the government of the United States and its allies. They betray their country for cash."

Finally, it is interesting that Modig, unlike Gross, was allowed to return home. Some will say it’s because Sweden doesn’t have anything Cuba wants – like the Cuban Five (who are serving in US prisons, and to whose fate Alan Gross's now seems to be tied). And others may say that Gross's crime was more serious. Then again, it may just be that Cuban authorities weren’t anxious to see Europeunite in protest and revisit sanctions against Cuba that were lifted several years ago. Though they weren’t that damaging, they were nonetheless of symbolic importance to Cuba, and their removal was welcomed. Afterall, once Europe lifted its sanctions against Cuba, it made the decades-old US sanctions look that much more isolated and overwhelming. In Cuba, there's only room for one mortal enemy.

– Anya Landau French blogs for The Havana Note, a project of the "US-Cuba Policy Initiative,” directed by Ms. Landau French, at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.

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