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Dissidents Present Democracy Petition to Cuba's National Assembly - 2002-05-10

In Havana, on Friday a group of political dissidents presented a petition with more than 11,000 signatures to the National Assembly asking that a referendum be held on opening the country to democracy. The move comes on the eve of a visit to the communist-ruled island by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

It is called Project Varela, named for a 19th-century activist priest, and it is the biggest internal political effort to change Cuba in more than 40 years. Under the Cuban constitution, the National Assembly must act on any request brought to it by at least 10,000 people.

The petition calls for a referendum on changes in the law that would allow freedom of expression and assembly, amnesty for political prisoners, free elections and the right to free enterprise.

The government of President Fidel Castro has dismissed the movement as insignificant, and officials have accused members of the 140 dissident groups backing the proposal of being on the payroll of the U.S. government. But if the National Assembly refuses to accept the petition, it will, in effect, be violating a law written by Mr. Castro himself.

Doing so would also be awkward since former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is due to arrive in Havana on Sunday for a six-day visit. Mr. Carter has spoken out against maintaining the 40-year-old U.S. embargo of Cuba, and the Castro government has promised him open access to all parts of the nation. But he is also expected to meet with dissidents during his visit and is likely to meet some of the Project Varela organizers.

On Tuesday, the former U.S. president will be allowed to address the Cuban people in an unprecedented television and radio broadcast. He will also visit Cuban education and health facilities and hold meetings with Mr. Castro. This will be the first time a U.S. president, in or out of power, has ever visited Cuba.

According to a schedule provided to reporters by the Carter Center in Atlanta, the former president will engage in what is described as "human rights and religious meetings." Observers believe this is when Mr. Carter is likely to meet with dissident leaders, including those who organized Project Varela.