19th June 20:25
" The Varela Project Lives " says Oswaldo Paya
Cuban Submits Signatures for Referendum
By ANITA SNOW
..c The Associated Press
HAVANA (AP) - 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
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,''
``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
The effort is named for Felix Varela, a Cuban independence hero and Roman
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.
Cuban rights activists on and off the island expressed support for Paya's move.
``Coming after the regimes harsh crackdown in March, this civic action shows
the strength of the pro-democracy movement in Cuba and its increasing ability
to mobilize the population,'' the Cuban Democratic Directorate said in a
statement from Miami.
Veteran rights activist Elizardo Sanchez called the delivery of the new batch
of signatures ``very positive.''
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.