Cuban Activist Proposes New Constitution, Right to Criticize Gov't

Activist Oswaldo Paya presented a proposal Wednesday for a new constitution with expanded freedoms for Cubans, calling for the right to criticize the government and operate private businesses.

The 170-page document, compiled by Paya's Christian Liberation Movement with input from Cubans on and off the island, contains a blueprint for a modified constitution and new electoral laws and rules of association.

It was considered highly unlikely that Cuba's communist government would heed the call for change. There was no immediate comment from authorities.

Copies of the proposal were released to international journalists exactly four years after Paya delivered to Cuba's parliament the first batch of 25,000 signatures gathered for his Varela Project. Paya's earlier democracy drive gained international recognition and prompted the government to declare socialism "irrevocable."

The latest document was produced after two years of discussions with Cubans on issues including education, health, religion, the economy and freedom of expression. Thousands participated in the effort, said Paya, whose group called for a popular vote on the proposed changes.

Propaganda and confiscation of private property are among things prohibited in the proposed constitution. The right to own a business and criticize those in power are among the expanded rights.

"No one can be antagonized because of their opinions or criticisms, even if these are directed against the government, government officials or any other person or sector of the society," the document says.

The document also focuses on one of the biggest sources of discontent on the island: preferential treatment for foreigners. Foreign companies can invest in Cuban enterprises, and tourists have access to many facilities closed to average Cubans.

All citizens must have the right to "enjoy the same bathing resorts, beaches, parks," etc., the document says.

The proposed constitution would also make it easier for Cubans to travel, and give those living off the island but maintaining Cuban citizenship the right to vote.

Under the Varela Project, Paya collected thousands of signatures of people seeking a rights referendum in Cuba, marking the most extensive homegrown, nonviolent effort to push for reforms in Cuba's one-party system since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

The Cuban government responded with a petition drive of its own to declare socialism an "irrevocable" part of the constitution. Signatures from the majority of registered voters were collected and lawmakers voted unanimously for the change in the constitution.

Paya's latest endeavor appears to take the Varela Project a step further by providing a draft constitution that could be debated.