- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

HAVANA Activists delivered more than 11,020 signatures to the National Assembly yesterday, demanding a referendum for broad changes in Cuba's socialist system less than two days before a visit here by former President Jimmy Carter.
Known as Project Varela, the signature-gathering campaign is seen as the biggest native, nonviolent campaign to force reforms in the government established by Fidel Castro 43 years ago.
The petitions propose a referendum that would ask voters if they favor civil liberties like free speech, an amnesty for political prisoners and the right to start their own businesses.
It was the first time dissidents had used a provision in Cuba's constitution that says the National Assembly should schedule a national referendum if it receives the verified signatures of 10,000 legal voters.
"The heroes are these Cubans, more than 20,000 who signed this demand for an opening in a written declaration," campaign coordinator Oswaldo Paya said before entering the National Assembly.
Mr. Paya said that of the 20,000 signatures activists gathered in recent months, volunteers verified 11,020 those delivered shortly before 11 a.m. to Columbia Lugo, a National Assembly secretary who deals with the public.
"All of these Cubans, who with great courage and sacrifice have signed Project Varela, are the social vanguard for peaceful change in Cuba," Mr. Paya said. "In Cuba, change for all rights will only be achieved if the majority of Cubans decide to conquer them peacefully. We are asking that the Cuban people be given a voice."
There was no immediate response from Mr. Castro's government to the initiative. Asked by reporters in April about the campaign, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said he doubted it would succeed and accused its organizers of being on the U.S. government payroll.

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