- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 15, 2002

HAVANA The chief architect of a petition seeking basic individual freedoms in communist Cuba yesterday demanded that Fidel Castro tell Cubans about the referendum drive.
"Our leaders prefer to speak to the international community," Oswaldo Paya said in the aftermath of Mr. Castro's first public acknowledgement of "the Varela Project," which he made in an ABC-TV News interview broadcast Friday.
"We are demanding that [he] make the same statement to the Cuban people," Mr. Paya told a visiting delegation of American newspaper editors yesterday.
The remarks by Mr. Paya, one of Cuba's leading anti-Castro dissidents, highlighted an extraordinary appearance at the home of James C. Cason, the United States' unofficial representative in Cuba.
Mr. Cason introduced Mr. Paya and two other prominent dissidents Vladimiro Roca and Martha Rocque to a surprised group of editors, visiting Cuba under the auspices of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Mr. Cason made no secret of U.S. willingness to help the dissidents bring peaceful democratic change to Cuba, but he said he does not believe Mr. Castro will allow it. "Castro is a dinosaur," he said.
But the U.S. envoy stopped short of saying publicly that the Bush administration is pushing "regime change" for the island nation. U.S. support for the dissident movement comes not in the form of money, but of fax machines, paper, pens, copies of the Cuban Constitution and Cuban history books, he said.
Ultimately, Mr. Cason said, any change in government is "up to the Cuban people."
Organizers of the Varela Project collected more than 11,000 signatures on a petition calling for a referendum asking Cubans whether they favored the expansion of basic liberties such as freedom of speech and the right to own a business. The constitution allows citizens to initiate new legislation with a petition containing 10,000 signatures.
But few Cubans were aware of the project until Jimmy Carter, the former president, cited it in a speech here in May that was televised throughout the island.
Mr. Castro responded by organizing a signature campaign to permanently enshrine socialism in the Cuban Constitution.
Other than that, he has had no comment about the Varela Project until the Friday night interview with Barbara Walters. When she asked him about it, he said the petition will be considered "in due time" by the National Assembly.
Cuban television aired the interview Sunday night and scheduled a discussion of its contents by Cuban officials to be shown last night.
In the interview, Mr. Castro said Mr. Paya's group Todos Unidos or "All United" was within its rights to petition, but said it will not be allowed to change the 1940 Cuban Constitution.
"The Varela Project does not request changes in the constitution," Mr. Paya said yesterday. "It asks that the law be changed to respect the constitution."
Contrasting the Varela effort with Mr. Castro's famous mass rallies in Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion, Mr. Paya said, "Change is not in the plaza raising the hand but in the voting booth." Mr. Castro "is not the only Cuban. There are 11 million others [who want] a normal life. That has been our fight from the beginning."
Mr. Paya said the members of Todos Unidos are continuing to collect signatures despite continued harassment by the government, including beatings, mob violence outside their homes and even the killing of family pets.
"This is not a period of perestroika," he said. "This is a period of Stalinism."
Asked whether his appearance with the two other dissidents at the U.S. residence will fuel Mr. Castro's criticism of them, Mr. Paya said, "Even when we didn't come here, the Cuban government accused us of being paid agents of the U.S. government. We assume the risk because we know what we are doing."
Although they criticized Mr. Castro for addressing an international audience that the financially crippled country needs to impress, the three dissidents agreed that their own efforts are better known outside the country than among their fellow Cubans.
"But change is happening," Mr. Paya said.
Referring to international press accounts of the dissident movement, Mr. Roca said in a separate interview yesterday, "Your articles will come to Cuba with tourists and on Radio Marti, the BBC, VOA and Radio Netherlands."
Tourism, primarily from Europe and Canada, is Cuba's primary source of desperately needed hard currency. The dollar is the overwhelming currency of choice for Cubans and tourists alike.
Mr. Paya congratulated Mr. Carter for winning the Nobel Peace Prize and said that members of Todos Unidos believe the award was due to his mentioning of Project Varela in Cuba.
Backers of the project "feel the peace prize is as much theirs as President Carter's," he said.


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