A phantom car, a Spanish politician, and a dead dissident: a Cuban mystery in Spain

Politician Angel Carromero confessed to manslaughter last year in Cuba, saying his driving killed Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá. But now he claims Cuba was behind it all.

Franklin Reyes/AP
Angel Francisco Carromero speaks via pre-taped video footage that was shown during a press conference in Havana, Cuba, last July. Mr. Carromero confessed to involuntary manslaughter last year in Cuba for driving his car into a tree, killing passenger and prominent Cuban opposition leader Oswaldo Payá. But Carromero, now in Spain, recently recanted, saying his car was driven off the road by a Cuban government vehicle.

The Spanish government is brushing off pressure to investigate the death of prominent Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, in a case that has the elements of a high-stakes spy thriller – including a car crash, a phantom vehicle, and a young and erratic driver who just happens to be a Spanish politician in the ruling party.

Mr. Payá, who won numerous awards for his peaceful struggle for democracy in Cuba, including one from the European Parliament, and another dissident, Harold Cepero, died last July when the car they were in hit a tree in Cuba. Suspicions over the accident surfaced immediately, but they subsided following a confession by the Spanish driver and court proceedings that were certified by Spain.

But calls for an independent investigation have been mounting since the driver, Angel Carromero, a leader in the youth movement of Spain’s ruling Popular Party, recanted and offered a new and contradictory version earlier this month, claiming that a Cuban government car had intentionally caused the accident by driving him off the road.

If proven, Madrid would be complicit in covering up a plot to assassinate Payá, a serious implication that most here consider preposterous, but would carry consequences among PP supporters who support Cuba’s dissidents, as well as with the US, Latin American, and European partners.

Payá’s family said Monday they will take their case to Spain’s highest court. On Tuesday, Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson asked the United Nations to investigate Payá’s death, endorsing a formal request made last week by Payá's daughter, Rosa María Payá. “It’s surprising that [the Spanish government] is giving credibility to Cuban justice,” she said Monday during a TV talk show.

Mr. Carromero has become a hero and is described as “brave” in Cuba’s dissident and anti-Castro groups in Spain, the US, and of course Cuba. The Washington Post in an editorial also called for an independent investigation, a message echoed throughout Cuban-American communities, as well as by lobby groups in Washington. The US Senate had already passed a resolution calling on Cuba to allow an independent investigation.

But with the exception of Spain’s far right, few in Spain are giving credibility to Carromero’s new version, suggesting instead that he is fabricating the story to further his political ambitions.

And should the government support Carromero’s new version, Spain would endanger the transfer of other Spaniards in Cuba who also hope to benefit from existing bilateral treaties.

Who’s lying?

Carromero was convicted in October of involuntary manslaughter by a Cuban court, and both Carromero and the Spanish embassy certified then that the proceedings were transparent. The government has strongly upheld the original Cuban verdict, distancing itself from Carromero’s change of heart, and basically dared him to prove his version.

Carromero, whose license was revoked last year by Spanish authorities after he accumulated more than 45 tickets in a year – including three for speeding and reckless driving – was handed over to Spanish custody under a bilateral agreement in December. Soon thereafter he was released under court supervision to serve the remainder of his four-year sentence.

Two weeks ago, Carromero said in an interview with the Washington Post that a car with official Cuban plates had rammed him off the road, and that he was then drugged and intimidated into confessing that he was responsible for the accident.

Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo, who was personally involved in negotiations to gain the release of Carromero, has said the government “has no evidence that things didn’t happen the way that Mr. Carromero said during the trial, as admitted in the memorandum of understanding” to gain his transfer to Spain. “If he has any evidence, he should go to a tribunal.”

The fourth occupant of the crashed car, Jens Aron Modig, a Swedish politician from the conservative Christian Democratic Party, was asleep at the time and says he doesn’t remember the accident.

Cuba is not likely to accept an independent inquiry, nor will Spain, unless a court finds enough evidence to validate Carromero’s new version. And a UN investigation is also unlikely because it would raise serious questions about Spain’s handling and could risk a diplomatic spat.

The question thus remains: Was Payá killed by the Cuban government?

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