HAVANA – Jimmy Carter's speech endorsing a homegrown reform movement captured the attention of Cuba's state-run media for the first time Wednesday as stunned — even confused — Cubans learned more about a campaign for more civil liberties in their communist country.
When the former American president spoke Tuesday night, live and uncensored on government TV and radio, it was the first time Cubans had ever heard anyone question their political system in such a bold and public manner.
Carter told citizens across the island of 11 million people that while their constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, "other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government." And he backed the reform effort, known as Project Varela, which he said would provide "freedom to change laws peacefully by a direct vote."
"Oh! My mother!" said a 62-year-old retiree who gave her name as Magaly. "I didn't think Carter would be so daring!"
Reflecting the discomfort many Cubans felt with such a public airing of views so different from Fidel Castro's government, Magaly declined to give her last name.
Others preferred not to talk about Project Varela and human rights at all, emphasizing Carter's call for normalization between his country and theirs, along with end to the four-decade-old U.S. trade embargo.
Project Varela was mentioned by name once in the Communist Party daily Granma on Wednesday, citing Jose Luis Toledo of the University of Havana's law school dean when he told Carter in a question and answer period after the address that the effort "had its origins in those in the United States who trying to subvert the internal order of Cuba."
For Cubans, the address carried special weight because Carter delivered the message directly to them in their native Spanish as he stood before the man who had provided the rare public forum: Fidel Castro.
Carter also raised other usually verboten subjects, suggesting that the International Red Cross and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights be allowed to visit inmates in Cuban prisoners.
For many listeners, the biggest surprise was Carter's mention of Project Varela, which most Cuban had never heard of.
Project organizers on Friday delivered to the National Assembly more than 11,000 signatures of people requesting a referendum on such rights as free speech, and the opportunity to own a business.
"Most of us never knew about this project because they don't talk about it in the press," Magaly said.
Esperanza Guilate, among hundreds of people lined up beneath cedar trees waiting for Carter to arrive Wednesday at a family clinic, said the former president's address was "good, very good."
The 42-year-old television worker expressed hope Carter's words would improve relations between her country and the United States. When asked if she disagreed with anything he said, Guilate simply responded: "Let's just say it was all good."
"Car-TER! Car-TER!" several dozen Cubans chanted in a rare spontaneous show of public support for someone besides Castro when the former American president arrived at the clinic. "Fi-DEL! Fi-DEL!" a smaller group chanted, even though Castro was not there.
"I don't think they expected to hear a speech by someone saying things that they are not allowed to say," said Vicki Huddleston, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana, who attended the speech and characterized Carter's comments on civil liberties as "courageous."
"I think they are confused," Huddleston said. "First, they hear a former American president say this is a good thing. Then, they hear a university student leader say this is a bad thing.
"People may not be ready to talk about Project Varela," she added.
Cubans did seem happy to talk about Carter's hope for normalization between the two countries, something that they favor and that Castro's government says it wants, too.