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Cubans collect petitions to challenge Castro

Proyecto Varela proposals delivered to National Assembly

Cuban activists Antonio Diaz, right, and Oswaldo Paya, left, speak to the media as they deliver petitions to Cuba's National Assembly on Friday.
Cuban activists Antonio Diaz, right, and Oswaldo Paya, left, speak to the media as they deliver petitions to Cuba's National Assembly on Friday.  

From Lucia Newman
CNN Havana Bureau Chief

HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- On the eve of a historic visit by former United States President Jimmy Carter, a Cuban opposition group Friday delivered to the National Assembly petitions containing 11,020 signatures, an unprecedented move to legally introduce sweeping social, economic and political reforms to Cuba.

The result of a drive known as the Proyecto Varela, the petitions call for:

  • Free and democratic elections
  • The right of free speech and assembly
  • The right to invest and work in private enterprise, which Cubans are not allowed to do
  • And the release of all political prisoners who have not committed acts of violence
  • Proyecto Varela was named for an early-20th Century priest, Felix Varela, who led a drive for a free Cuba during the twilight of the Spanish colonial era.

    The project's signatures have been collected all over Cuba for the past year amid threats, intimidation and harassment on the part of Cuban security personnel against those who signed, said petition organizer Oswaldo Paya, a longtime dissident who heads the outlawed Christian Liberation Movement.

    Shortly before leaving his home Friday morning to deliver two white cardboard boxes of signed petitions, Paya and four other organizers gathered in a circle and prayed, asking for God's help in allowing them to actually turn the petitions over to the National Assembly, in accordance with constitutional provisions.

    Paya said several thousand signed petitions have been seized by the secret police in the past year in an attempt to sabotage the project.

    Carter interest in project

    The delivery of the boldest opposition challenge to Fidel Castro's communist government since the Cuban Revolution he led more than 40 years ago took place 48 hours before Carter's scheduled arrival as the first sitting or former U.S. president to visit the island nation since relations between Washington and Havana were severed.

    Carter, who has expressed great interest in Proyecto Varela and Cuban human rights in general, is to arrive Sunday morning on a five-day visit designed to encourage U.S.-Cuban reconciliation.

    His visit was approved by the Bush administration, which said it hopes the former president will deliver to Castro a "stern and forceful" message about the need for human rights and democratic freedoms in the island nation.

    And this week, the State Department has listed Cuba as one of the nations that has the potential, while limited, to construct biological weapons and has alleged that it exports the technology to other "rogue nations."

    The Cuban Constitution stipulates that at least 10,000 registered voters can petition the government and present legislative proposals that must be considered by the National Assembly. But nothing of the magnitude of the reforms proposed by Proyecto Varela has ever been attempted.


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