Cuba has lost one of the leading members of its civil society. Oswaldo Paya died in a car crash on July 22nd at the age of 60. Mr. Paya founded the Christian Liberation Movement, or MLC, in 1987, which called for nonviolent civil disobedience against the rule of the Cuban Communist Party. The group advocates for civil liberties, respect for human rights, and freedom for political prisoners.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Paya and other MLC activists began collecting signatures for the Varela Project, a proposal advocating for democratic political reforms within Cuba. The project is named in honor of Félix Varela, a Catholic priest who had participated in Cuba's independence struggle with Spain.
In May 2002, Mr. Paya presented the Cuban National Assembly with 11,020 signatures calling for a referendum on safeguarding freedom of speech and assembly, allowing private business ownership, and ending one-party rule. The petition drive has been described as the biggest nonviolent campaign to change the Communist system forcibly installed by Fidel Castro in 1959. The European Parliament awarded Mr. Paya with the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2002 for his courageous efforts.
Unfortunately, the referendum was ultimately rejected. And in 2003, the Castro government initiated a brutal crackdown on dissidents arresting dozens in what has become known as the Black Spring.
President Barack Obama praised Mr. Paya as a tireless champion for greater civil and other human rights in Cuba. Mr. Paya gave decades of his life to the nonviolent struggle for freedom and democratic reform in Cuba. The United States will continue to support the Cuban people as they seek their human rights and fundamental freedoms.