Washington — Leading Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, who died in a car crash Sunday, had a very special — if somewhat clandestine — friend in Connecticut in former Rep. Sam Gejdenson.

“Payá’s efforts in Cuba were the most remarkable since (Fidel) Castro took over,” said Gejdenson, who was deeply involved in foreign affairs in Congress.

A Democrat who represented eastern Connecticut, the 2nd Congressional District, in Washington for almost 20 years, Gejdenson continued his work on international affairs after he left office in 2000.

As a director of the National Democratic Institute, Gejdenson helped promote Payá in Cuba and throughout the world. He met with Payá five or six times in Cuba and “gave him advice on how to deal with the international community.”

There was also a personal side to the relationship, with frequent phone calls to celebrate holidays and to catch up.

But the links between Gejdenson and Payá carried an element of danger.

For years, the Cuban government has sought to discredit pro-democracy activists in Cuba by linking them to U.S. government-funded groups like the National Democratic Institute. To dissuade these types of relationships, the Cuban government has made it illegal — and punishable with stiff prison sentences — for Cubans to have ties to such groups.

Payá was already under scrutiny by the Cuban authorities, who often harassed the dissident’s family, Gejdenson said.

The Castro government placed two large billboards facing Payá’s house in Havana. One said, “Opposing the government is a crime,” the other, “Death to Traitors.”

Payá, 60, was the founder of the Christian Liberation Movement that in 2002-2003 collected 25,000 signatures on a petition calling for free elections and the release of political prisoners.

The Cuban government ignored the “Varela Project,” named after a Cuban candidate for sainthood, and arrested more than 50 of its organizers. But the petition drive brought into prominence a once largely unknown group of dissidents.

“They were the most effective, broadest-based organization in Cuba,” Gejdenson said.

Cuban authorities Monday said Payá and fellow activist Harold Cepero Escalante died in a one-car crash in eastern Cuba. A Spaniard and a Swede who were also riding in the car survived but were injured.

Gejdenson called the accident “a suspicious turn of events,” but said he had no proof of wrongdoing.

In a statement, the White House Monday called Payá “a tireless champion for greater civic and human rights in Cuba.”

“He remained optimistic until the end that the country he loved would see a peaceful and democratic transition,” the statement said.

But leaked State Department emails show the U.S. government considered Payá and other older Cuban activists ineffective because they failed to reach the island’s youth.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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