- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 27, 2002

Cuba's parliament spent a third day yesterday discussing the merits of socialism and last week's referendum designed to enshrine socialism forever in the Cuban Constitution.

"We prefer socialism to capitalism true democracy is socialism," said Vice President Carlos Lage, one of dozens of Cuban delegates who spent the day praising the Cuban revolution and vilifying President Bush and U.S. policies toward Cuba.

"Does Mr. Bush really think that he will return to sink us in this hell of injustice? Does he suppose that Cubans will renounce the work they have realized, that they will turn over their sovereignty, betray their history and their nation?" asked Ricardo Alarcon, National Assembly president.

One proposed constitutional amendment would "expressly set forth the will of the people that the economic, political and social system consecrated in the constitution is untouchable," he said.

Cubans were given Monday and Tuesday off from work to watch the televised session to discuss a referendum that was called after an opposition group pressed for democratic and human rights reforms.

The government gathered 8.1 million signatures supporting socialism, but dissidents protested that there was no opportunity to reject the question.

Mr. Castro's signature-collection drive came in response to the Varela Project, in which 11,000 signatures were gathered by dissidents and publicized by former President Jimmy Carter during his recent visit to Cuba.

A clause in the Cuban Constitution gives citizens who gather 10,000 signatures on a question the right to be heard before the National Assembly.

Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs said yesterday that President Fidel Castro's move toward "untouchable" socialism was a "counterproductive move and an act of poor judgment." But, he said, "it shows that Castro still holds significant backing within Cuba."

Steve Johnson of the Heritage Foundation called Mr. Castro's referendum and the parliamentary debate a "desperate move."

On Tuesday, the Cuba Policy Foundation released a study advocating the removal of the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba. According to the study, in travel-related benefits alone, the removal of the embargo would result in gains of up to $1.9 billion and over 12,000 new jobs for the U.S. economy.

"Americans want to travel to Cuba, and a growing bipartisan coalition in Congress supports them. It is time U.S. policy reflects the sentiment in Congress and the will of the American people," said Sally Grooms Cowal, director of the bipartisan foundation, which was already on record as opposing the embargo.

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican, said yesterday that lifting the travel ban would only help Mr. Castro maintain his iron grip on the Cuban people.

"Massive U.S. tourism would only generate billions of dollars for the Castro dictatorship," he said. "Conditioning U.S. tourism upon democratic reform constitutes the strongest available leverage for a democratic transition in Cuba."

Others disagreed.

"Today, Fidel Castro is the only voice. This would not be the case if Americans traveled to Cuba," said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican. "American travel to Cuba spreads American influence and democratic ideals. We have to move legislatively."

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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