Cubans learn of referendum project via speech by Carter

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

HAVANA -- Speaking in Spanish in a live, uncensored broadcast, Jimmy Carter gave Cubans a glimpse of Western-style democracy Tuesday, revealing to them the existence of a grassroots campaign to bring civil liberties to the communist-ruled island.

The speech by the former president, the highest ranking American to visit the island since its 1959 revolution, was unprecedented, and amounted to a carefully balanced appeal for America to drop its embargo, and for Cuba to join the democracies of the Western Hemisphere.

"We hope that someday soon, you can reach across the great divide that separates our two countries and say, 'We are ready to join the community of democracies,'" Carter said.

"And I hope that Americans will soon open our arms to you and say, 'We welcome you as our friends.'"

Perhaps the most significant moment in Carter's prepared text dealt with the Varela Project, a campaign to demand changes in the socialist system that governs Cuba's 11 million people.

It is not discussed in the state-controlled media.

For many Cubans, it was the first time they had heard of the project and its discussion drew obvious discomfort in this closed society, where people are unaccustomed to hearing opinions that differ from their government's.

"I respect his opinions," said one viewer, 50-year-old secretary Graciela Rodriguez. "This gentleman was president and is convinced of his ideas. But he is not Cuban."

Some seemed more at ease talking about Carter's hopeful words on improving relations.

"On the day that relations between our countries are normalized, Cuba should thank Carter" said Gisela Frances, a 36-year-old office worker. "He has planted an important little seed."

Cuca Gomez, a 73-year-old retiree, said she also liked Carter's talk about the two countries becoming friends "and Cuba and the United States resolving their problems."

Speaking before a gathering that included President Fidel Castro and other top officials, Carter said he had been told that the Varela Project "has gathered sufficient signatures and has presented such a petition to the National Assembly."

Organizers have delivered to the National Assembly 11,020 signatures seeking a referendum that would ask Cubans if they favor human rights, electoral reform, an amnesty for political prisoners and the right to have a business.

The project is named for the Rev. Felix Varela, a Roman Catholic priest and revered independence hero whose remains are kept in an urn in the University of Havana's elegant Aula Magna, or great hall. It was there, at a wooden podium, that Carter delivered his prepared speech.

Cuban authorities claim the campaign was "imported" from the United States. The organizers insist it's homegrown, with moral -- but not financial -- support from abroad.

"When Cubans exercise this freedom to change laws peacefully by a direct vote, the world will see that Cubans, and not foreigners, will decide the future of this country," said Carter.

In Washington, President Bush urged Cubans on Tuesday to "demand freedom." Bush said of Carter's trip: "It doesn't complicate my foreign policy because I haven't changed my foreign policy -- and that is Fidel Castro is a dictator and he is oppressive and he ought to have free elections and he ought to have a free press and he ought to free his prisoners and he ought to encourage free enterprise."

Carter also responded to questions from audience members who defended Cuba's system.

Hassan Perez, president of the National Student's Union, said he felt "profound indignation" at mention of the Varela Project, and said that its supporters had no support.

"I would like to see maybe a referendum held and the people of Cuba agree with the 10,000 citizens or disagree," Carter said. "I think the world would look on with admiration."

In a remark sure to please Castro, Carter said it was time "to change our relationship and the way we think and talk about each other. Because the United States is the most powerful nation, we should take the first step."

Reminding his audience of how he normalized relations with China in 1979, he said the United States should lift the 43-year-old embargo on travel to and trade with Cuba. Cuban exiles in America could, he said, serve as "a bridge of reconciliation between Cuba and the United States."

But he also painted a picture of how the Western Hemisphere had been transformed since the end of the Cold War.

"When I became president, there were only two democracies in South America, and one in Central America. Today, almost every country in the Americas is a democracy. ... Today, any regime that takes power by unconstitutional means will be ostracized, as was shown in the rejection

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