HAVANA -- Cuban activist Oswaldo Paya, who spent decades speaking against the communist government of Fidel and Raul Castro and became one of the most powerful voices of dissent against their half-century rule, died Sunday in a car crash. He was 60.
Paya and a Cuban man described by media as a fellow activist, Harold Cepero Escalante, died in a one-car crash in La Gavina, just outside the eastern city of Bayamo, Cuban authorities said. A Spaniard and a Swede also riding in the car were injured.
Cuba's International Press Center told The Associated Press that witnesses said the driver of the rental car lost control and struck a tree. Police are investigating.
"This Sunday has been a day of mourning. A terrible tragedy for his family and a loss for the opposition movement," said Elizardo Sanchez, a human rights advocate and de facto spokesperson for Cuba's small opposition. "He was a prominent leader. He dedicated years of his life to fighting for democracy."
Paya's home is in Havana and it was not immediately clear why he was near Bayamo, 500 miles east of the capital.
He is the second leading Cuban dissident to die in the last year, after Laura Pollan, co-founder of the protest group Ladies in White, died of heart failure in October.
Paya, who drew strength from his Roman Catholic roots as he pressed for change in his homeland, continued to voice his opposition after Fidel resigned due to illness in early 2008, calling the passing of the presidency to younger brother Raul a disappointment.
"The driving force of society should be the sovereignty of the people, not the Communist Party," Paya wrote after the new parliament chose Raul Castro as head of state and government. "The people of Cuba want changes that signify liberty, open expression of their civil, political, economic and social rights."
Paya, an electrical engineer, gained international fame as the top organizer of the Varela Project, a signature-gathering drive asking authorities for a referendum on laws to guarantee civil rights such as freedom of speech and assembly.
Oswaldo Jose Paya Sardinas was born on Feb. 29, 1952, the fifth of seven siblings in a Catholic family.
Paya became an activist in the late 1980s when he founded the nongovernmental Christian Liberation Movement, which emphasized peaceful, civic action.
In late 2002, the European Union awarded Paya its top human rights prize and pledged to support his efforts to bring democracy to his homeland.
Through his years of activism, Paya always underscored his religious upbringing as the foundation for his convictions.
"The rights that we demand in the Varela Project are enunciated in the constitution. But we also have them because we are human beings, sons of God," Paya said after turning in the second batch of petitions. "And because of that, we will continue demanding them for all Cubans, with the faith that we will achieve them."