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Oswaldo Payá, an eloquent Cuban activist who spent decades trying to build a grass-roots movement that would compel the government of Fidel and Raúl Castro to allow more freedom and human rights, died on Sunday in a car crash in eastern Cuba. He was 60.

The circumstances of his death were in dispute. Cuban officials said the crash, near the eastern city of Bayamo, occurred when the driver lost control and hit a tree, killing Mr. Payá and another Cuban and injuring two passengers, one from Spain, the other from Sweden.

But some Cuban dissidents said witnesses saw another vehicle hit Mr. Payá’s, and one of his three children, Rosa Maria Payá, 23, said in a tearful interview that she did not believe that the crash had been an accident.

Though the family has struggled financially in recent years and pressure on dissidents has increased, Ms. Payá said, her father never gave up hope that the country could be changed from within.

“He just wanted for Cubans to have their rights,” she said. “That’s all he ever wanted.”

Mr. Payá, an engineer with strong Roman Catholic convictions, rose to prominence just over a decade ago as the main organizer of the Varela Project, a petition drive calling for a referendum to guarantee freedom of speech and assembly and other human rights.

When he began collecting signatures in the late 1990s, Cuba’s domestic opposition movement was virtually invisible. The Castro government had kept the ranks of dissidents small by pressuring and isolating them and describing them as little more than mercenaries paid to be mouthpieces for conservative Cuban exiles in the United States. Many Cubans in Havana at the time expressed skepticism about the dissidents’ intentions.

But Mr. Payá created a new model with his humility, his public rejection of both American aid and the American trade embargo, and his effort to draw Cubans into the movement.

“What really distinguished him was that unlike almost all the others, he engaged in retail politics,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert with the Lexington Institute, a conservative public policy research organization in Arlington, Va. “His Varela Project stands out as the only initiative of its time that enlisted citizen participation on a large scale. No one else did that, before or since.”

In 2002, the European Union awarded Mr. Payá its top human rights prize, named after the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. In his acceptance speech, Mr. Payá said the prize was “for all Cubans, because I believe that, in awarding it, Europe wishes to say to them: ‘You, too, are entitled to rights.’ ”

By trying to reform the Castro government, Mr. Payá placed himself in the middle of two extremes. Reviled by the government, he was not much loved by hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami, either; they appreciated the attention he garnered but said he was naïve.

His petition drive ultimately failed. After he delivered 11,020 signatures in May 2002 (he delivered 14,000 more later), the Cuban government began its own referendum, which made the island’s socialist system “irrevocable.”

And after many of Mr. Payá’s allies were arrested in 2003 in a crackdown that sent dozens of dissidents, writers and librarians to prison, he and his Christian Liberation Movement began to fade from international view. A new generation of dissidents arose to grab the spotlight, including the wives of the arrested political prisoners and young bloggers like Yoani Sánchez.

But the younger activists have continued to hold him in great respect, and many are grief-stricken.

“A faultless man just died,” Ms. Sánchez wrote on Twitter on Sunday night, adding, “We have become even more orphaned.”


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