- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

A petition sponsored by Cuban dissidents for a referendum on democratic reforms has gathered the necessary signatures, but the Cuban police are responding with attacks and threats, the senior U.S. diplomat in Cuba said yesterday.
"The human rights activists have become the voice of the Cuban people … and it is now reaching critical mass, because they have persuaded the people to overcome their fears," said Vicki Huddleston, U.S. Interests Section chief in Havana. "The Varela Project … represents the overcoming of their fear."
The Varela Project, as the initiative is called, is the brainchild of Christian activist Oswaldo Paya. It is named for Father Felix Varela, a 19th-century pro-independence Roman Catholic priest. The petition demands the rights of free speech, freedom of assembly, the release of all political prisoners and the right of private enterprise. According to Article 88 of the Cuban Consitution, if 10,000 people sign a petition, the question can be put before the Cuban people.
Mrs. Huddleston, who was previously ambassador to Madagascar and Haiti, said the dissidents have gathered as many as 15,000 signatures. The signatures are being checked and could be presented to the Cuban National Assembly within the next few weeks.
She said the petition has terrified the Fidel Castro government, because it is being conducted within the framework of the constitution.
She said signers are being beaten and threatened with losing their jobs.
In some cases, mothers are threatened that their children would be taken away if they do not remove their names from the petition, she said.
"Intimidation of Operation Varela is getting worse," she said.
"Authorities are acting like gangsters," Mr. Paya told Reuters news agency earlier this month. "The government is afraid of this liberating gesture, where a social vanguard is showing it has no fear," he said.
Mrs. Huddleston traced the spurt in dissident activity to a development last summer when the government hinted that Mr. Castro's brother, Raul, would succeed the communist leader as president. When Mr. Castro fainted during a speech before a rally June 23, a senior government official grabbed the microphone and shouted "Viva Raul. Viva Fidel."
"I believe the transition is under way. It started … when Fidel Castro fainted," Mrs. Huddleston said. "It answered the question of who would be the successor. … There would be no name change, no generation change. It would be Fidelismo, without Fidel."
Fidel Castro, who has ruled Cuba for more than four decades, will be 76 in August; Raul, who is second in the Cuban hierarchy, will be 71 in June.
Mrs. Huddleston said Mexican President Vicente Fox also helped when he met the Cuban dissidents on his visit to the island in February.

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