Cubans to Learn More About Civil Rights Project, Thanks to Carter

Now that Jimmy Carter has done them the favor of telling millions of Cubans of a grass-roots campaign to bring civil liberties to the communist island, organizers want the text of the proposed referendum published.

The former U.S. president made the existence of the project known in an uncensored nationwide TV and radio speech May 14, but many Cubans still do not know what it actually says.

"You cannot have a proposed law if it is secret, if it is hidden," said Oswaldo Paya, organizer of the Varela Project. "We want to give citizens the opportunity to see it."

Because the organizers do not have resources to print and distribute copies of the proposed referendum, they have spent recent weeks explaining it to curious Cubans.

Paya said a Roman Catholic priest invited him last week to explain the Varela Project to about 100 of his parishioners.

Paya said Varela Project organizers will shortly launch a campaign for the referendum text to be published by state media -- something Carter suggested.

"A proposed law has to be known by citizens," Paya said. "That's their right."

It was unclear how the organizers intended to get media controlled by Fidel Castro's government to publish the text, especially since officials have given little hope for the referendum's success.

Cuba's Communist Party daily Granma and the Communist Youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde did, however, publish an uncensored version of Carter's speech, giving citizens a permanent record of his words about the Varela Project and human rights and democracy in general.

Cuba's constitution says the National Assembly should schedule a national referendum if it receives the verified signatures of 10,000 legal voters.

Named for Felix Varela, a Cuban independence hero and Roman Catholic priest, the signature drive was discussed as early 1996, but volunteers didn't begin collecting signatures in earnest until last year.

Project organizers delivered more than 11,000 signatures to the assembly on May 10, calling for a referendum on whether voters favor new laws guaranteeing civil rights such as freedom of speech.

Cubans would also be asked whether they want a law guaranteeing the right to own their business, an amnesty for political prisoners and changes in how they elect their leaders.

"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," Carter said.

The government never responded to Carter's suggestion that the referendum text be published. Nor has it responded to Varela Project organizers about the proposed referendum's future.

The signature-gathering effort is seen as perhaps the biggest homegrown, nonviolent campaign for deep changes within the government Castro established 43 years ago.

Statements by officials and supporters of Cuba's socialist system indicate the government will argue against the Varela Project, insisting it is not a proposal for new laws but for constitutional change.

"It is not possible to try to use a bill to contradict the legal order of this nation," University of Havana Law School dean Jose L. Toledo said last month.

Toledo also said the Varela Project was crafted by foreigners "whose intentions are to destroy the people's revolutionary work."

Paya insists the referendum is homegrown, with moral — but not financial — support from abroad.