Several million Cubans participated in marches Wednesday in support of a constitutional amendment that would declare Cuba's communist system "untouchable." The move is seen as a response to an amendment proposed by the island's dissidents that would open the country to democracy.
Images from Cuban television show President Fidel Castro leading hundreds of thousands of marchers down Havana's coastal boulevard and past the U.S. Interests Section. Mr. Castro, wearing his traditional olive-green military uniform, carried a small Cuban flag and was flanked by plain-clothed security men.
Similar government-mobilized marches were held around the country, with large crowds reported in the cities of Holguin and Santiago. Cuban officials said prior to the march they expected one million participants in Havana alone.
The purpose of the demonstration was to reject calls for a more open, democratic society in Cuba. The marchers supported a proposed amendment to the Cuban constitution that would declare Cuba, in the words of the draft, "a socialist state of workers, independent and sovereign, organized with all and for the good of all, as a unified and democratic republic…"
But the island nation's populace do not stand in unity, and the "democratic republic" spoken of in the draft amendment is the stated goal of Cuba's political dissidents.
Last month, a group of dissidents presented a petition with more than 11,000 signatures to the National Assembly, demanding a referendum on democratic reforms. The so-called Varela Project was given a boost on May 14 when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter mentioned it during an unprecedented address to the nation. His words were later published in the government-controlled newspapers.
Although the Cuban constitution obligates the National Assembly to at least consider any petition with more than 10,000 signatures, Cuban officials have dismissed the Varela Project as a U.S. government-sponsored plot.
But Varela Project supporters remain confident. In a statement issued to international media, they criticized Mr. Castro's march and the amendment his government supports as, "this anti-civic attempt against the constitution, against the people's intelligence."
The dissidents also chided the Castro government for speaking in the name of the people without consulting the people through a referendum. They also declare the campaign for the Varela Project referendum will continue.