- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

HAVANA Cubans prepared yesterday for a weekend "referendum" on President Fidel Castro's plan to enshrine socialism in the Cuban Constitution.
Mr. Castro told Cubans in an address Thursday night that they would be allowed to "vote" on making socialism an inalienable part of the constitution. He said it would represent "a compelling response to a liberator that no one has invited," an apparent reference to President Bush.
However, the official text of the "referendum" does not provide an option to vote against the move, leaving opponents with no choice but abstention, according to leaders of Cuba's illegal but tolerated opposition groups.
From noon today until noon Tuesday, Cubans are invited to sign their names to the statement as a sign of their support.
The text would then be approved by the National Assembly, set to meet July 5, once voters give their voice.
The United States heaped scorn on Mr. Castro's proposed "referendum," denouncing it as a transparent attempt to foil the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people.
Deputy State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the move was nothing more than a ploy to sink the so-called "Varela Project," a petition with more than 11,000 signatures presented to the Cuban National Assembly in May seeking a referendum on political pluralism and market-minded economic change.
"Instead of addressing this peaceful plea for change, Mr. Castro has chosen to manufacture an alternative petition supporting the current constitution and to intimidate the population into signing it," Mr. Reeker told reporters in Washington yesterday.
"Obviously, given Castro's control over the Cuban population, he is no doubt going to try to get more signatures on this than on Project Varela and make arguments to that effect," he said.
"But I think we can already say that no matter what the outcome, he's not going to be able to obscure the fact that one important thing has occurred with Project Varela: that it has succeeded in getting 11,000 Cubans to brave Castro's tyranny and to call for change and that the voices of the Cuban people have been heard in that matter."
Mr. Reeker, speaking on Thursday just hours before Mr. Castro announced his signature campaign on national television, derided recent mass rallies in Cuba as a sign that Mr. Castro was growing desperate in the face of challenges to his leadership.
According to Cuban government figures, 9 million Cubans, 86 percent of the population, participated in megaprotests throughout the island Wednesday to denounce U.S. foreign policy and recent U.S. accusations that Cuba was developing biological weapons.
Mr. Castro first backed the idea of a "referendum" on socialism at one of those rallies, after repeated international criticisms of the island's lack of democratic processes.
Mr. Castro asked Cubans to approve an amendment to the constitution that would "expressly consecrate the will of the people that the economic, political and social system established in the constitution of the republic is inalienable."
The communist leader said the move would mean "that no one has the least doubt of how the Cuban people feel and think," giving all citizens of voting age "the chance to make the historic referendum their own."
Those who want to express their support can do so at 129,523 booths around the island, and Mr. Castro said "pertinent measures" would be taken to avoid replication of signatures.
Mr. Castro said the move was a "clear response" to Mr. Bush and his calls for free elections in Cuba before Washington would consider lifting its 40-year-old embargo on the island.
However, according to the Cuban opposition, Mr. Castro's proposal fails to offer regime opponents room to express their views or block the amendment.
"This shows the fundamentalism of the government," said high-profile dissident Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz of the opposition Cuban Human Rights Commission.
"They are trying to head off the Varela Project," Mr. Sanchez said.


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