Former President Carter meets dissidents

Friday, May 17, 2002

HAVANA -- Former President Jimmy Carter, who has already given Cuban dissidents as much domestic publicity as they have ever had, met Thursday with opponents of Fidel Castro's government.

The first to arrive for the meetings, held in the house of a U.N. official, was Vladimiro Roca, who was freed from prison May 5 after nearly five years in prison for demanding changes in Cuba's communist system.

Others included organizers of the Varela Project, who say they gathered 11,020 signatures seeking a national referendum on rights including free speech, free assembly and the ability to open a business.

Carter used a nationally broadcast speech Tuesday night to mention the Varela Project, suggesting that the world "would look on with admiration" if Cuban leaders had the courage to hold a debate and vote on the project in their single-party state.

Cuba's communist news media on Thursday printed Carter's comments in full -- giving unprecedented attention to dissidents who are generally ignored by government broadcasters and television.

It also included the text of Tuesday's responses to Carter from Communist Party loyalists such as national student leader Hassan Perez, who charged the project backers were "tied to a mafia" in the United States. On Wednesday, one of the project organizers, Hector Palacios, said his colleagues were "satisfied, because the Cuban people heard about our project."

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