Cubans left hopeful but confused by Carter's call for more libe

Sunday, May 19, 2002

HAVANA -- Tottering on spiked heels on Old Havana's cobblestone streets, Alejandra lowers her voice when talking about hopes for greater liberties after Jimmy Carter's groundbreaking visit to Cuba. She switches into English when a policeman nears.

"People are afraid to talk openly about these things," says Alejandra, 22, who sells black market cigars to tourists outside an old church to help support her mother and 2-year-old daughter. "We're not sure what we can say anymore without getting in trouble."

Carter's call for greater liberties, unprecedented inside Cuba, stirred up many feelings in Cubans, in some cases leaving them confused about what the rules are, what lines can be crossed.

For an hour on Tuesday, the nation was transfixed as a speech by Carter was broadcast live on state television and radio. Standing before their "Maximum Leader," Fidel Castro, the former American president voiced opinions many Cubans would not be comfortable making in public.

"Cuba has adopted a socialist government where one political party dominates, and people are not permitted to organize any opposition movements," Carter told them. "Your constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government."

"Mr. Carter was not afraid to say things as they are," said Alejandra, who only reluctantly provided even her first name.

Petition for civil liberties

Carter also mentioned one thing that the vast majority of Cubans had never heard of: Project Varela, a petition campaign aimed at getting a referendum on ensuring citizens civil liberties such as freedom of speech, the right to start their own business, an amnesty for political prisoners and electoral reform.

Cubans were delighted the government published Carter's speech in full in the Communist Party newspaper Granma on Thursday, giving them a permanent record of his words that they can reread and study in the coming months and years.

But many say they'd also like a printed copy of Project Varela so they could study what it says and decide for themselves if it is something they agree with.

Alejandra said young people like her are hungry for more. "We want a good job, we want a business, we want to be able to go to the United States and then come back to our own country."

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