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Posted August 31, 2007 by publisher in Oswaldo Paya

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ANITA SNOW | The Associated Press

Oswaldo Paya of the Christian Liberation Movement and architect of the Varela Project pro-democracy drive asked Cuba’s parliament on Thursday to abolish and replace the country’s electoral law and hold free, democratic general elections as soon as possible.

In the letter addressed to the president of Cuba’s national assembly, Oswaldo Paya also asked for a change in existing laws to guarantee citizens “freedom of expression, respect for diverse opinions existing in society and access by all citizens and opinions to mass media.”

A copy of the letter and an accompanying news release were hand-delivered by messenger to The Associated Press on Thursday evening.

The latest move by Paya, among Cuba’s best-known dissidents, appeared aimed at reviving the long-shelved Varela Project just as communist-run Cuba gears up for municipal elections this fall.

There was no immediate official reaction to the new initiative, which was announced after government offices closed for the day.

The Varela Project was a signature-gathering drive that asked voters if they favored a referendum that would change Cuba’s electoral law and guarantee rights including freedom of speech and assembly and private business ownership.

When Paya delivered the first batch of 25,000 signatures to the parliament in 2002, it was seen as the most extensive homegrown, nonviolent effort to push for reforms in Cuba’s one-party system since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

Lawmakers later shelved the initiative, ruling it unconstitutional, and the Cuban government responded with its own petition drive to declare socialism an “irrevocable” part of the constitution.

“We call on all Cubans to pay attention and support this demand for a new electoral law,” Paya and Minervo Lazaro Chil Siret wrote in a separate declaration as leaders of the Christian Liberation Movement that previously promoted the Varela Project.

“In this moment in our history, Cuba needs transparency and confidence and that only can be achieved by respecting the ideas and rights of everyone, not imposing an electoral process ... that for years has impeded the people from freely expressing and deciding for itself.”

In a similar move, recently released political prisoner Francisco Chaviano on Thursday sent journalists a letter also addressed to National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, asking that the next general elections include a referendum on whether to continue with Cuba’s current system.

Signed by Chaviano and his wife, Ana Anguililla, the letter said such a popular referendum “is necessary, given the historical juncture implied by the end of Fidel Castro’s mandate due to his health and age.” Chaviano, among Cuba’s most veteran dissidents, was released earlier this month after 13 years in prison.

Castro, 81, officially remains Cuba’s president, but has not been seen in public in the 13 months since he temporarily ceded his powers to his brother Raul after undergoing intestinal surgery.

No date for general elections to elect provincial and national assembly members has been announced, but they are expected early next spring. Municipal assembly elections are scheduled for Oct. 21, with neighborhood meetings to nominate candidates starting this weekend.

The Varela Project was named for the Rev. Felix Varela, a 19th century Roman Catholic priest and early promoter of Cuba’s independence from Spain.

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