Then there is the story of Oswaldo Payá, a world-famous Cuban dissident and founder of the Varela Project who (along with fellow dissident Harold Cepero) died last July after a highly suspicious car accident. As Wall Street Journal columnist Mary O’Grady has written, Payá’s daughter, Rosa María Payá, believes that his car “was intentionally rammed from behind by another car,” and that her father’s death was “a probable murder.” In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Spanish politician Ángel Carromero, who was driving the car carrying Oswaldo Payá, said that they were rammed by a government vehicle whose occupants were “staring at [them] aggressively” before the collision. Carromero also said that, after the crash, he was drugged and threatened by Cuban authorities, who subsequently convicted him of manslaughter. (In December, Carromero was repatriated to Spain, and he has since been paroled.) Florida senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, has urged the United Nations to launch “a thorough independent investigation of the events leading up to Payá’s death.”
The death of Payá and the broader campaign of repression against Cuban activists are troubling enough. But for U.S. officials hoping to abolish or ease sanctions, the elephant in the room is the ongoing detention of USAID contractor Alan Gross, a Maryland resident who has been held in a Cuban prison for more than three years on ridiculous espionage charges. It is hard to argue that Havana either deserves or desires warmer relations with Washington when it continues to hold an American hostage. Gross, who turns 64 in May, has seen his health deteriorate, and has reportedly lost more than 100 pounds since his incarceration.
His only “crime” was to help boost Internet access for Cuba’s tiny Jewish community. But the Castro regime fears greater Internet access because it fears losing its monopoly on information. It fears that Cubans will become more willing to challenge the status quo and demand real reforms. And, indeed, that is exactly what’s been happening. As dissident-blogger Yoani Sánchez told the Post last month, “People are losing their fear, moving from silent to open, from wearing a mask to showing their real face in public.” Havana’s growing concern over political unrest explains the imprisonment of Gross, and the crackdown on the Ladies in White, and the harassment of activists across the island.
Simply put: Cuba is becoming more repressive because the dictatorship is increasingly afraid of a homegrown democracy movement. That would seem to be a much bigger story than a few cosmetic economic reforms designed to keep the regime in power.
Appearing last month on Spanish television, Rosa María Payá said that Raúl’s reforms are mainly a PR stunt, and not a serious attempt to improve human rights. They “are designed to win over international public opinion,” she said. “The conditions Cubans live in has not changed.” If the Castro regime is truly serious about reform and liberalization, Payá added, it will allow a nationwide referendum on democracy — the type of referendum called for by her father’s Varela Project. The government’s refusal to hold such a referendum shows just how little Cuba has actually changed.