Cuban activist presses referendum

Saturday, October 4, 2003

HAVANA -- A leading democracy activist delivered more than 14,000 signatures to Cuba's parliament Friday demanding a referendum for sweeping political changes, just six months after the Fidel Castro government's major crackdown on dissenters.

This is the second straight year activist Oswaldo Paya delivered thousands of signatures to the government as part of the Varela Project -- considered the biggest homegrown, nonviolent effort to push for reforms in Cuba's one-party system.

Last year, he delivered 11,020 signatures to the National Assembly.

"Hope is reborn," Paya said Friday after the large box of petitions was accepted by a government clerk. "Cuba needs changes and there is a citizen vanguard willing to achieve them."

The petitions propose a referendum asking voters if they favor civil liberties like freedom of speech and assembly, and amnesty for political prisoners.

In a letter to National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon accompanying the petitions, Paya said many Varela Project volunteers were among the 75 dissidents arrested and sentenced to long prison terms in the spring as part of a government crackdown on the opposition.

The crackdown was condemned internationally.

"The majority of these, the prisoners of the Cuban spring, suffer unjust imprisonment and are an example of the strength and dedication of our people," Paya wrote.

"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.

"And because of that we will continue demanding them for all Cubans, with the faith that we will achieve them."

After the first petition was delivered in May 2002, lawmakers shelved it, saying the changes it sought were unconstitutional. Paya said he was determined to keep pressing for the referendum.

"The Varela Project lives," Paya said. "The campaign continues across the country."

The effort is named for Felix Varela, a Cuban independence hero and Roman Catholic priest.

The 14,384 signatures delivered Friday raise the combined number from both petitions to 25,404, Paya said. Tens of thousands more signatures have been seized by state security officials, he added.

There was no immediate response from Castro's government.

Dozens of petition workers have been picked up for questioning in recent weeks, although none was formally charged, Paya said.

Paya has emerged in recent years as Cuba's best known opposition activist and has been acknowledged by rights groups and leaders around the world.

He has been mentioned as a possible nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, which will be awarded Oct. 10.

The first package of signatures was delivered just days before former President Carter's visit to Cuba in May 2002. During an uncensored speech broadcast live across the island, Carter told Cubans about the democracy effort.

The signature drive was discussed by activists as far back as 1996, but volunteers did not begin collecting signatures in earnest until 2001.

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