HAVANA – Former President Jimmy Carter, who has already given Cuban dissidents as much domestic publicity as they have ever had, met Thursday with 23 government opponents and urged them to work together, the activists said.
Carter "recommended unity among us, that we in the opposition join together," said Julio Ruiz Pitaluga, 76, spent 23 years behind bars as a political prisoner.
Cuba's dissidents are united only by their problems with the Cuban government and don't agree on the reform referendum that Carter mentioned in his historic speech Tuesday night, the Varela Project.
Government opponents include free-market advocates, unhappy socialists, human rights and religious activists, former prisoners of conscience and heads of political parties unrecognized by Cuba's one-party government.
"We repeated that Cubans themselves are the solution to the problems of the Cubans," Oswaldo Paya, a Varela Project coordinator, said after meeting with Carter in the two-story stucco residence of a U.N. official in west Havana.
Earlier, Who's Who of Cuban dissidents rolled up in vans, passing a scattering of U.S. Secret Service agents and plainclothes Cuban security men, who waited outside during the meetings.
Carter first met alone with Vladimiro Roca, who was freed May 5 after nearly five years in prison for demanding changes in Cuba's communist system. He then met separately with two larger groups.
Afterward, he was driven to a church for talks with five Roman Catholic bishops. He had met and worshipped on Wednesday with Protestant leaders.
Paya presented Carter with a poster of the Rev. Felix Varela, the Roman Catholic priest and independence hero the proposed referendum is named for. Project organizers say they gathered 11,020 signatures for the referendum on rights including free speech and the ability to open a business.
In his nationally broadcast speech Tuesday night, Carter said the world "would look on with admiration" if Cuban leaders held a debate and national vote on the project.
Cuba's communist news media on Thursday printed Carter's comments in full — giving unprecedented attention to dissidents who are generally ignored by official newspapers, radio and television.
"His words at the university were historic," said Rene Gomez Manzano, who was imprisoned along with Roca but released earlier.
He said publication of Carter's criticism "is something very different from what the people have become accustomed to hearing during the chill of 43 years," a reference to Castro's time in power.
The newspapers also included the text of Tuesday night's responses to Carter from Communist Party loyalists such as national student leader Hassan Perez, who charged that the project backers were "tied to a mafia" in the United States.
Justice Minister Roberto Diaz Sotolongo told a news conference on Thursday that the United States has invested $10 million to finance dissidents in Cuba since 1996, "and this year, 2002, they have planned $5 million."
He said that backers of the Varela petition "represent only 0.01 percent of the population," and added, "We know that the government of the United States, and especially the U.S. Interests Section in the country, have a role in this."
But he called the petition drive "proof of how democratic our system is."
Carter took a brief break for birdwatching outside of Havana on Thursday morning following four days that included two dinners with Castro, a baseball outing with the Cuban president and visits to schools, farms, hospitals, research laboratories, churches and historic sites.
His visit was to end on Friday.
On Wednesday, President Bush's administration rejected Carter's call for an end to the 40-year U.S. trade embargo against Castro's Cuba.
Bush was expected to outline a new Cuba policy on Monday in Miami.
Aides said Bush would seek to toughen U.S. action against the Cuban government and soften the approach toward the Cuban people, perhaps by promoting independent business and increasing aid to dissidents. Washington could also try to overcome the jamming of U.S. government stations aimed at Cuba — Radio Marti and TV Marti.