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Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá blazed path for democracy in Cuba

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(Read caption) Mourners surround the coffin containing the body of the Cuban activist Oswaldo Payá during a funeral mass in Havana, Cuba, Monday, July 23. Payá, who spent decades speaking out against the communist government of Fidel and Raul Castro and became one of the most powerful voices of dissent against their half-century rule, died Sunday in a car crash.

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

It’s hard to say what the future might have held for Oswaldo Payá, a prominent Cuban dissident who headed the Christian Liberation Movement on the island, had he not perished in a car accident [Sunday].

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But what he left behind is no small thing: Mr. Payá managed to organize fellow Cubans, who organized more fellow Cubans, and together they collected nearly 25,000 signatures seeking democratic reforms to the Cuban constitution. And while some criticized him for his Varela Project (so named for a famous Cuban priest and independence hero), which proposed changes to a constitution that critics refuse to legitimize, the movement he led is the only reformist one that I’m aware of to spread across the island and reach thousands of Cubans. Payá, who shunned US aid insisted that Cuba’s transition would be undertaken by Cubans, not foreign governments. It was his Varela Project that reached the ears of an entire nation, thanks to former President Jimmy Carter’s nationally live-televised 2002 speech – in Spanish, no less – at the University of Havana.

Oswaldo Payá was a man dedicated to his faith and to his hopes for a more just and democratic society. Simply put, he made an impact in a way few other Cuban dissident activists have, and his passing leaves a void that won't be easily filled.

– 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.