Cuban Activists Challenge Fidel

Cuban president Fidel Castro, Jul.26,2003 in Santiago de Cuba, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada military barracks.
A leading activist on Friday delivered more than 14,000 signatures to Cuba's parliament demanding a referendum for sweeping political changes in a new challenge to Fidel Castro's government.

It was the second year in a row that activist Oswaldo Paya has delivered piles of signatures to the government as part of the Varela Project — seen as the biggest homegrown, nonviolent effort in more than four decades to push for reforms in Cuba's one-party system.

"The Varela Project lives," Paya told reporters Friday morning. "The campaign continues across the country."

He then went to the National Assembly, accompanied by his wife, Ofelia, and another project volunteer. Paya lugged the large box stuffed with 14,384 signatures up the concrete stairs of the government building as a small group of journalists and curious neighbors looked on.

The petitions propose a referendum asking voters if they favor civil liberties like freedom of speech and assembly, and amnesty for political prisoners.

Last year, he brought 11,020 signatures, but lawmakers shelved the petition, saying that the changes sought were unconstitutional. Friday's signatures are all new, Paya said, bringing to 25,404 the combined total of signatures submitted.

Paya says that tens of thousands of other signatures have been seized by state security officials. There was no immediate response from Castro's government.

Dozens of petition workers have been picked up for questioning in recent weeks, Paya told reporters Friday. None were formally charged, he said.

In a letter to National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon delivered with the petitions, Paya said that many Varela Project volunteers were among 75 dissidents who were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms in the spring.

Governments around the world have condemned the crackdown, which began in March.

"The majority of these, the prisoners of the Cuban spring, suffer unjust imprisonment and are an example of the strength and dedication of our people," Paya wrote in his letter.

"The rights that we demand in the Varela Project are enunciated in the constitution. But we also have them because we are human beings, sons of God," he added. "And because of that will we continue demanding them for all Cubans, with the faith that we will achieve them."

Paya has emerged in recent years as Cuba's best known opposition activist and has been acknowledged by rights groups and leaders the world over.

His name has also been mentioned among possible nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize, to be announced on Oct. 10.

The first package of signatures were delivered just days before the May 2002 visit to Cuba of former President Carter. During an uncensored speech broadcast live across the island, Carter told Cubans about the democracy effort.

Named for Felix Varela, Cuban independence hero and Roman Catholic priest, the signature drive was discussed by activists here as early 1996. But it wasn't until 2001 that volunteers began collecting signatures in earnest.