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10/10/03 - THE VARELA PROJECT LIVES - 2003-10-11

Cubans seeking freedom and democracy have taken another bold step to challenge the dictatorial regime of Fidel Castro. They have delivered to the government fourteen-thousand new signatures on a petition calling for a referendum on political and economic change in Cuba.

The initiative is known as the Varela Project. It is named after the nineteenth century Roman Catholic priest Felix Varela, who fought for the emancipation of slaves in Cuba. Last year, the movement’s leader, Oswaldo Paya, used a provision in the Cuban constitution that permits citizens to introduce legislative initiatives when accompanied by ten-thousand signatures. With support from more than one-hundred organizations, Varela Project members presented over eleven-thousand signatures to the Cuban national assembly, Castro’s rubber-stamp parliament. The petitions were thrown out.

But the Varela project members went back to work and have delivered a new set of signatures on the referendum. It calls for freedom of expression, association, and enterprise, amnesty for political prisoners, a new electoral law, and democratic elections. As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega said, the petition drive is a great achievement:

“In spite of the efforts of the regime to silence the opposition and the dissident community in Cuba, that there are people who are carrying out the work to defend and to demand and to claim the basic freedoms to which they’re entitled.”

Petition signatures were collected in the midst of the toughest crackdown against dissidents in years. In April, the Castro government jailed seventy-five Cubans whose only so-called “crime” was seeking democratic change in Cuba. Varela Project organizer Oswaldo Paya has dedicated the new petition to the jailed dissidents. The delivery of these new signatures shows that the regime’s repression failed, and that truly independent civil society continues to seek freedom in Cuba.

The U.S. supports the Varela Project and other peaceful efforts to bring freedom to Cuba. As President George W. Bush said, "Focusing our support on activities that promote democratic values will go a long way toward accelerating the democratic transition of Cuba.”