Ramon Espinosa, Associated Press
HAVANA — Cuban dissidents vowed to continue their fight for more political and civil rights Monday following the death of prominent activist Oswaldo Paya in a car crash. Meanwhile, foreign governments from the United States to the European Union sent messages of condolences.
Family members, dissidents and Roman Catholic Church officials gathered at Paya's house in the Cerro neighborhood of Havana to await the arrival of his body, which was being brought from the eastern province of Granma for burial.
"I want to say thank you for all the messages, the phone calls and the people who have come to express their support in these tragic moments," Ernesto Martini, a close associate of Paya, told the mourners.
"I can promise you and assure you we will continue our struggle, our demands for the civil rights of all Cubans," Martini said.
Paya gained international fame as the lead organizer of the Varela Project, a signature-gathering drive asking authorities for a referendum on guaranteeing rights such as freedom of speech and assembly. The initiative launched a decade ago was seen as the biggest nonviolent campaign to change the system Fidel Castro established after the 1959 Cuban revolution.
Paya died Sunday afternoon along with another dissident, Harold Cepero Escalante, in the crash in La Gavina, 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of the capital. Authorities said the driver of the rental car carrying Paya and Cepero lost control and struck a tree. Fellow passengers Jens Aron Modig, a Swedish citizen, and Angel Carromero, a Spaniard, were hospitalized with minor injuries and later released.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the wheel.
Cuban exile groups in the United States demanded a thorough investigation, and President Barack Obama's administration lamented Paya's passing.
Paya was "a tireless champion for greater civic and human rights in Cuba ... (who) gave decades of his life to the nonviolent struggle for freedom and democratic reform in Cuba," the White House said in a statement.
Cuban state media reported the deaths without mentioning that Paya and Cepero were government opponents. Official media rarely refer to dissidents except to excoriate them as "counterrevolutionaries" financed by Washington.
Spanish Embassy spokesman Francisco de Borja said Carromero has been giving statements to investigators and it was unclear when he would return to Spain.
Kalle Back, secretary-general of the Swedish Christian Democratic Youth, said Modig was in Cuba together with Carromero, who's deputy chairman of the Spanish ruling conservative Popular Party's youth wing. The Popular Party said Carromero was in Cuba for vacation and could not say how he came to be traveling in the vehicle with Paya.
Modig is chairman of the youth wing of the Christian Democrats, a small political party that's part of Sweden's center-right coalition government.
"He is doing well under the circumstances," Back said of Modig. "He has been released from the hospital and is under the care of the Swedish Embassy. ... He was there to show his moral support for the democracy movement."
The Spanish government and the European Union, which awarded Paya its Sakharov human rights and democracy prize in 2002, both sent condolences.
"Oswaldo Paya had dedicated his life to the cause of democracy and human rights in Cuba," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.
Paya's brother, who lives in exile in Spain, called Monday a day of mourning for the family.
"We are feeling enormous pain," Carlos Paya said. "But we live with the fortitude that Oswaldo sowed to continue his work inside and outside of Cuba."
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Havana, Karl Ritter in Stockholm, Jorge Sainz in Madrid and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.
- Better than a raise: The smallest thing you...
- Many Mormon missionaries who return home...
- WestJet airline video goes viral as Santa...
- Adjunct professors unionize for respect and...
- Little difference between PG-13 and R-rated...
- Looking beyond the premium is a 2-tiered...
- NTSB: Pilot in San Francisco plane crash...
- Health care signups increase to 364,682;...
- Judge orders Colo. cake-maker to serve... 124
- Can Mandela's legacy revive the GOP? 30
- Health care debate about presidential... 24
- Space and religion: How believers view... 24
- Health care signups increase to... 20
- Looking beyond the premium is a... 16
- India's Supreme Court upholds anti-gay... 14
- The American Dream is still alive for... 11