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Posted October 14, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Human Rights

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BY NANCY SAN MARTIN | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Miami Herald

Wielding a document with 14,384 names, a democracy activist continues his crusade in the face of Castro’s crackdown.

Varela Project leader Oswaldo PayŠ delivered 14,384 new signatures to Cuba’s legislature Friday, boldly defying a March crackdown that included the arrests of 42 members of his campaign for a referendum seeking democratic reforms.

‘‘The Varela Project lives,’’ PayŠ, 51 and one of the communist-ruled island’s best-known dissidents, told reporters as he lugged a box stuffed with the names, addresses and national identity card numbers of petitioners.

‘‘The Varela Project lives,’’ PayŠ, 51 and one of the communist-ruled island’s best-known dissidents, told reporters as he lugged a box stuffed with the names, addresses and national identity card numbers of petitioners.

Government opponents say the signatures serve as a testament of Cubans’ courageous desire for political change, despite efforts by President Fidel Castro to quash the dissident movement. Forty-two of the 75 people arrested in March and serving prison terms of up to 28 years were active members of the Varela campaign.

‘‘The wave of repression has not stomped out the will of the Cuban people who want change,’’ Ernesto Martini Fonseca, who accompanied PayŠ to the National Assembly, said in a telephone interview from Havana. “Our campaign will not be paralyzed. We have thousands more signatures.’‘


Friday’s delivery was the second time in 17 months that PayŠ has gone to the National Assembly, the island’s legislature, to hand over the signatures of registered voters requesting a referendum on democratic reforms, a process allowed by Cuba’s constitution.

He delivered the first 11,020 signatures, 1,020 more than constitutionally required for a referendum, just days before a May 2002 visit to Cuba by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Carter, who met with PayŠ during his trip, told Cubans about the democracy effort in an uncensored speech broadcast live across the island on television and radio.

The Cuban government responded to the Varela Project with a massive signature drive of its own for a constitutional amendment, later approved by lawmakers, ratifying Cuba’s socialist system as “untouchable.’‘

There was no response from the government Friday on the new delivery. But Cuban officials in the past have said the Varela Project has no official standing and effectively shelved it.


PayŠ went to the National Assembly shortly after 11 a.m. accompanied by his wife, Ofelia, and Martini. The signatures, accepted by the same official who received the first pile, brings to 25,404 the combined total of signatures submitted so far.

The delivery was accompanied by a letter addressed to National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon in which PayŠ said his arrested supporters ‘‘suffer unjust imprisonment and are an example of the strength and dedication of our people,’’ The Associated Press reported.

‘‘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,’’ PayŠ wrote. “And because of that, we will continue demanding them for all Cubans, with the faith that we will achieve them.’‘

PayŠ, who has received worldwide recognition for his grass-roots campaign in Cuba, also has been touted as a possible recipient for the Nobel Peace Prize, which was to be announced Friday.


His actions were applauded by supporters in Cuba and Miami, although no one expected a positive response from Castro’s government.

‘‘They must continue to try so that those in charge can understand, once and for all, that people want change,’’ prominent dissident Vladimiro Roca said by phone. “Unfortunately, the government won’t do anything. But at least this will let the international community know that the desire is very much alive.’‘

Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, said: “If you’re fighting for freedom, you continue fighting for freedom.’‘

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuba and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami, said the new batch of signatures “shows there are a lot of courageous people in Cuba.’‘

But, he added, “It plays more outside of Cuba than inside. Castro is in a very, very tough mood. He isn’t going to change anything. And, legally, they have an excuse—the avenue of petitions is closed now because of the constitutional amendment the National Assembly approved.’’

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