- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

From combined dispatches

HAVANA Cuba's National Assembly yesterday officially quashed a proposed referendum on political and economic reforms that had been hailed as the boldest dissident challenge to President Fidel Castro's communist government in more than 40 years.

"The case was reviewed by the Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee, which decided not to proceed, and to inform its sponsors of that verdict," said Miguel Alvarez, an aide to National Assembly Speaker Ricardo Alarcon.

Oswaldo Paya, leader of the referendum effort known as the Varela Project, was out of the country and not immediately available for comment.

In May, Varela Project delivered to the assembly boxes of petitions bearing more than 11,000 signatures requesting the popular referendum on political and economic reforms under the current constitution.

Explaining the rejection of the opposition effort, Mr. Alvarez said it "went against the very foundation of the constitution, amongst other reasons."

"It has already been shelved," Mr. Alvarez added, in the first official declaration that Cuba's one-chamber parliament considered the Varela Project dead.

Mr. Alvarez said Mr. Paya, also the leader of Cuba's Christian Liberation Movement, was informed of the decision in November.

But earlier this month, Mr. Paya said in Washington that signatures for the referendum campaign still were being collected.

"The Cuban government is afraid of the Varela Project because it shows that the Cuban people are capable of organizing and mobilizing for change," Mr. Paya, 50, told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

A spokesman for the project, named after an 18th-century independence hero, said yesterday that no formal response had been received from the National Assembly and that the petition drive continues.

"They have not given us a response. The Varela Project is going forward with thousands of citizens continuing to sign," steering committee member Efren Fernandez told the Reuters news agency.

The committee this week called for a public debate on its demands.

"We call on all Cuba's citizens to demand information on the petition and debate it in public," a committee statement said.

President Bush had said the Varela Project might give Cubans a chance to start down a road toward peaceful reform.

The petition invokes a little-known provision in the Cuban constitution to ask for a referendum on reforms such as freedom of expression, political pluralism, the right for Cubans to own businesses and the freeing of political prisoners.

The Cuban constitution mandates the National Assembly to consider referendum requests made by more than 10,000 registered voters.

Mr. Castro told reporters Sunday that the Varela Project was "foolish." The Cuban dictator charged that it was the creation of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, "that incubator of supposed dissidents."

Mr. Paya, a medical-equipment technician, has been traveling outside Cuba since mid-December, receiving prizes and praise from heads of state and other officials in Europe and the Americas. He met Jan. 6 with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in Washington.

Mr. Paya last year won the European Parliament's Sakharov prize for freedom of expression.

The Varela Project galvanized a large part of Cuba's small and traditionally divided dissident groups. The groups are illegal and harassed, but tolerated by the government, which views them as working for its enemy, the United States.

Former President Jimmy Carter gave the Varela Project unprecedented publicity within Cuba last May when he visited Havana.

Mr. Carter praised the initiative, and implicitly Mr. Castro's tolerance of it, in a speech to Cubans broadcast live by the state-run media. In his 20-minute address in Spanish, he identified the Varela Project the first time most Cubans heard about the campaign and called on the Cuban government to respect democracy and human rights.

"Cuba has adopted a socialist government where one political party dominates, and people are not permitted to organize any opposition movements," Mr. Carter said.

"Your constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government.

"When Cubans exercise this freedom to change laws peacefully by a direct vote, the world will see that Cubans, and not foreigners, will decide the future of this country," Mr. Carter said.

A few weeks later, Havana mobilized more than 8 million Cubans in a petition drive to amend the constitution by making the one-party political system and state-run economy "irrevocable." The National Assembly quickly did so.

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