HAVANA -- In an unprecedented challenge to Fidel Castro's 43-year-old rule, activists delivered more than 11,020 signatures to the National Assembly on Friday, demanding a referendum for broad changes in Cuba's socialist system less than two days before a visit by former President Carter.
Known as Project Varela, the signature-gathering campaign is seen as the biggest homegrown, nonviolent effort in more than four decades to push for reforms in Cuba's one-party system.
The petitions propose a referendum asking voters if they favor civil liberties like freedom of speech and assembly, and amnesty for political prisoners.
"In Cuba, change for all rights will only be achieved if the majority of Cubans decide to conquer them peacefully," campaign coordinator Oswaldo Paya said.
The delivery of the petitions appeared timed with the visit by Carter, who arrives Sunday for a five-day visit at Castro's invitation.
Carter, who historically has been an advocate for human rights and democracy, has been pressured by the White House and the Cuban exile community to press those themes during his trip.
Specifically, the State Department is asking him to tell Castro it is time for a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy.
The former president also should urge Cuban officials respect their people's freedoms of speech, assembly and choice of leaders, department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday.
Carter plans to meet with Cuban activists to discuss human rights and religious matters next Thursday, his staff has said. He also may meet with petition organizers.
"The Varela Project is the most important issue former President Jimmy Carter can possibly deal with on his trip to Cuba this week," said Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, a powerful Miami-based lobbying group.
'The culture of fear'
One of Cuba's best-known veteran activists said the campaign wouldn't necessarily spell the end of Castro.
"Project Varela does not say that the government should go, but rather that it make some modernizing changes," said Elizardo Sanchez, who also coordinated the petition campaign. "The important thing about Project Varela is the mobilization of Cuban society ... the rupture of the culture of fear."
"The heroes are these Cubans, more than 20,000 who signed this demand for an opening in a written declaration," said Paya. He said that of the 20,000 signatures activists gathered in recent months, volunteers verified 11,020 -- those that were delivered.
Paya and two other men showed up Friday morning outside the offices of the National Assembly with two white boxes labeled "Citizen Petition."
Two uniformed guards let them inside, where they stayed just seven minutes before delivering the petitions.
Cuba's constitution says the National Assembly should schedule a national referendum if it receives the verified signatures of 10,000 voters.
There was no immediate response from Castro's government.
Named for Felix Varela, Cuban independence hero and Roman Catholic priest, the signature drive was discussed by activists here as early 1996. But it wasn't until the last year that volunteers begin collecting signatures in earnest.
Castro was scheduled to speak live on state television Friday night to respond to U.S. charges that it is trying to develop biological weapons for transfer to countries hostile to the United States.