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Cuban Dissidents Collect Signatures for Reform - 2002-03-09

Pro-democracy dissidents in Cuba say they have collected 10,000 signatures on the communist-run island in support of a referendum on political reform. Cuba's government has yet to comment on the initiative.

The petition drive is unprecedented in the 43-year rule of Cuban President Fidel Castro. The goal is to force a referendum on guaranteeing freedom of expression and association, amnesty for political prisoners, electoral reforms that could lead to a general election, and greater opportunities for private enterprise.

Dissidents say they have collected the 10,000 signatures required Cuba's constitution for citizens to propose new legislation. They say they are reviewing the signatures to verify authenticity before submitting them to Cuba's National Assembly.

Cuba-watchers say the likelihood of the assembly embracing the petition is remote at best. But the fact that dissidents have proceeded with the project, and apparently found thousands of people willing sign the petition, is seen as significant: a sign that the political landscape may be shifting around President Castro, who has maintained an iron grip on Cuba since the island's 1959 revolution.

The government has routinely labeled dissidents as counterrevolutionaries and lackeys of the United States. Some dissidents maintain contact with the virulently anti-Castro Cuban exiles in south Florida. For years, U.S. policy to Cuba has included seeking ways to assist Castro opponents on the island.

Dissidents say they first considered mounting a petition drive shortly after Pope John Paul visited Cuba in early 1998. After much discussion, they began collecting signatures last year. The initiative, known as the "Varela Project," is named after a 19th century Roman Catholic priest who backed Cuba's independence from Spain and advocated the emancipation of slaves on the island.