Ofelia Acevedo, wife of Oswaldo Paya, places a rose on her husband's tomb during his burial in July 2012.
Cuban authorities have long insisted that the death of Oswaldo Payá, denounced by state media as an allegedly CIA-backed "well-known counterrevolutionary leader", was an accident. Reuters

Rosa María Payá, aged 34, was always convinced that the car accident resulting in the deaths of Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá and fellow activist Harold Cepero in 2012 was not a mere accident.

"We've been fighting for more than 10 years to get the truth about what happened to my father acknowledged," says Rosa María Payá.

"The Cuban regime killed my father and Harold Cepero," she told the BBC after the release this week of a new report - issued by the leading regional human rights entity for the Americas - which concludes that Cuban state agents "participated" in their deaths.

Oswaldo Payá, a prominent figure in Cuba's pro-democracy movement, dedicated decades to advocating for human rights and democracy in the Communist-controlled island. Despite political opposition being illegal and subject to active persecution, Payá persisted in his efforts.

Cuban authorities have consistently maintained that the death of Oswaldo Payá, whom state media portrayed as a purported CIA-backed "well-known counterrevolutionary leader," was a result of an accident. The state media commentators have also launched personal attacks on Payá's daughter, labeling her as a "liar."

In 1988, Oswaldo Payá established the Christian Liberation Movement, which grew to become one of Cuba's largest opposition groups.

He also initiated the Varela Project, a campaign with the objective of collecting 10,000 signatures, as required by the Cuban constitution, to petition the National Assembly for a referendum.

Payá's vision aimed to foster change in Cuba, a nation led by Fidel Castro since 1959, through grassroots efforts.

The proposed referendum would have posed questions to the Cuban populace regarding their support for legal changes guaranteeing freedom of expression and association, fair and free elections, and amnesty for political prisoners.

Engaging in a door-to-door campaign, Payá and his fellow activists diligently sought support, and, in May 2002, they delivered cardboard boxes containing the signatures of 11,020 Cuban citizens to the National Assembly.

However, despite successfully meeting the signature target, the Varela Project had not gained widespread recognition at that time. Cuba's state media, tightly controlled by the government, had deliberately disregarded the petition, resulting in many Cubans being unaware of its existence.

This situation took a significant turn when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter publicly commended the Varela Project. In a speech delivered in Spanish at the University of Havana a few days later, Carter praised the initiative, and notably, this occurred in the presence of Fidel Castro himself.

Consequently, the recognition and support garnered by the Varela Project thrust Oswaldo Payá and its supporters into the forefront of the opposition against the Castro government.

Cuban officials lashed out, accusing the Varela Project of being "financed, encouraged and directed by foreign interests", while the National Assembly gave no formal response to the petition.

Approximately one month later, government-affiliated groups initiated their own referendum, seeking approval for an amendment that would declare Cuba's socialist system as untouchable.

In a notable response seen by many as an effort to counter Oswaldo Payá's calls for increased democracy, Fidel Castro led a massive march through the streets of Havana. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans participated in support of the amendment.

The amendment received overwhelming support, with 99% of Cuban voters endorsing it. The government hailed this as a testament to the invincibility of the Cuban revolution. However, critics argued that this result demonstrated the fear that most Cubans felt in voting against the government.

Approximately a year later, several advocates of the Varela Project were imprisoned, although Oswaldo Payá himself was not among them. He, however, spoke out against constant surveillance and harassment perpetrated by Cuban authorities.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) documented the extent of these measures against Payá and his family in a report.

It found that Cuban authorities "chased him through the streets in various cars, followed him to church, to work, and agents were stationed at the door of his house".

Despite facing such reprisals, Oswaldo Payá remained resolute in his campaign for democracy.

Tragically, on Jul. 22, 2012, while traveling in eastern Cuba, Payá was involved in a car accident along with Harold Cepero, another member of the Varela Project, and two young European politicians—a Spaniard and a Swede.

Rosa María, who was 23 years old at the time, vividly remembers the distressing phone call she and her mother received from Varela Project supporters in Europe.

These concerned supporters informed them about worrisome messages they had received from the two European politicians accompanying her father and Harold Cepero.

"They told us that something had happened to them."

"I frantically called my dad's phone, and no-one answered, until finally a forensic doctor picked up," Rosa María Payá recalls.

"When I shouted at her asking where the owner of the phone was, she at first appeared confused, until she finally told me that there had been a fatality and hung up."

Tragically, both Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero, who were seated in the back of the car, lost their lives in the crash.

The driver, 26-year-old Spaniard Ángel Carromero, and Swedish youth politician Aron Modig survived with minor injuries and were taken to a hospital in the nearby city of Bayamo.

According to the survivors, they informed friends shortly after the accident that another car had forced them off the road by hitting them from behind.

Rosa María Payá reveals that her family immediately harbored suspicions that the crash was not an accident. This suspicion was fueled by the fact that just a little over a month prior, Oswaldo Payá had experienced a similar incident and miraculously survived.

Rosa María Payá shared with the BBC that she considers herself fortunate not to have lost both of her parents on that fateful day in June.

According to the report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which took a decade to compile, the events following the crash that claimed the lives of Payá and Cepero were highly irregular, BBC reported.

The survivors were taken to a hospital that was surrounded by soldiers, and Ángel Carromero, the driver, disclosed to the IACHR that he was subjected to drugging, physical abuse, and coerced into providing a false confession by Cuban authorities while in detention, claiming fault for the accident.

Cuba's interior ministry produced a digital reconstruction of the accident, which it shared through state-run media.

The recreation suggested that the car had veered off the road and collided with a tree on a section undergoing repairs, describing it as "very slippery" due to gravel.

The ministry also cited three eyewitnesses who allegedly claimed the car had been driving at an "excessive speed."

Cuba did not present any evidence related to the case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

Historically, Cuba has criticized the regional institutions, including the IACHR, as being part of a structure created by the United States to exert control over Latin America.

Rosa María Payá expresses her lack of expectation for any action from the Cuban government in response to the report.

Nonetheless, she welcomes the report as a significant and relieving milestone. She firmly asserts that the Cuban regime "assassinated" her father and believes that justice will only prevail in Cuba when there is freedom and democracy.

These are the very principles, she emphasizes, that her father and Harold Cepero fought for.

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