MIAMI (AP) — One of several Cuban dissidents recently allowed to visit Europe and the U.S. after Cuba changed its travel laws said Tuesday she decided to seek refuge in Miami after facing continued repression on the island.
Rosa Maria Paya said she and her family have been the subject of threats, harassment and increased vigilance since her father's death last year and following her return to Cuba in April.
"We wanted to rest a bit from the persecution we faced in Cuba," Paya said, "and continue working on the opposition's proposals for change and transition to democracy."
Paya, 24, is the daughter of the late Oswaldo Paya, the lead organizer of the Varela Project, a signature-gathering drive regarded as the largest nonviolent campaign to change the system Fidel Castro established in 1959. The petition asked authorities for a referendum on guaranteeing rights such as freedom of speech and assembly in Cuba.
In July 2012, Paya and youth activist Harold Cepero died in a car crash in Bayamo, Cuba. The two men and another passenger were in a car driven by Spaniard Angel Carromero, who lost control and struck a tree, according to government authorities. Carromero was convicted of vehicular homicide and sent to Spain to serve a four-year sentence.
Paya's daughter, wife and others have insisted the crash was not an accident. They assert that witness accounts, text messages and statements made after the crash raise questions about the Cuban government's account. Rosa Maria Paya spoke with government officials in the U.S. and Europe to press for an international investigation.
Rosa Maria Paya was allowed to leave in April after Cuba eliminated the exit permit that had been required of islanders for five decades. She was one of several prominent Cuban dissidents to visit the U.S. and appears to be the first to have returned to Cuba and then sought status as a political refugee in the U.S.
She said that when she returned to Cuba, immigration officials at the airport told her, "Welcome."
But the threats, vigilance and oppression against her family and others involved in the movement her father started intensified, she said.
The decision of the Paya family — six members in all — to leave the island is likely to be seen as a black eye to the Cuban government, which has been trying to portray itself as a more open society since enacting a slate of social and economic reforms in recent years, said Jaime Suchlicki, a professor at the University of Miami.
"It makes it look like the Cuban government is oppressive, which it is," Suchlicki said. On the other hand, with one less dissident on the island, "I don't think the Cuban government is going to be too upset."
Ofelia Acevedo, Oswaldo Paya's wife and Rosa Maria's mother, said she and other family members are residing in the U.S. as political refugees, not exiles, and do not plan to ask for political asylum. Under the Cuban migratory changes enacted in January, Cubans can stay abroad for two years before forfeiting full citizenship rights.
The U.S. State Department declined to provide any specific information about the family's case.
Acevedo said her family's stay in Miami was of a "temporary nature." But she also declined to provide any specifics on when they would return.
"We will continue fighting until real change is a reality in Cuba," Acevedo said. "The amount of time it will take, we don't know. When we are going to return we don't know either."
The family vowed to continue the work of Oswaldo Paya from Miami in conjunction with activists on the island. But Suchlicki said their departure was a setback for the Christian Liberation movement Paya started.
"They're going to continue, but it's one of many groups in exile," Suchlicki said. "It's a limited impact that they will have in Miami. Internally they would have more impact."
Follow Christine Armario on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cearmario