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Powell Meets Cuban Dissident Who Led Democracy Petition Drive - 2003-01-07

Secretary of State Colin Powell met Monday with prominent Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya to underscore U.S. support for efforts to bring democracy to the communist-ruled island. Mr. Paya is a key figure in the "Varela Project," a petition drive seeking a referendum on democratic reforms.

Mr. Paya posed for pictures with Secretary Powell in a State Department reception room before a 20 minute private meeting described here as a courtesy call. Mr. Paya left the building by a side entrance and did not talk to waiting reporters.

But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called it a "very good meeting" and an opportunity for the Secretary to lend support and encouragement to Mr. Paya and other "courageous" Cubans involved in trying to bring about peaceful, democratic change there.

"The Secretary expressed his admiration for the efforts that Mr. Paya is making as an organizer of Project Varela. His petition drive provides a way for the Cuban people to express their desire for a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy," he said. "It's part of growing opposition in Cuba and is receiving increasing international attention. As you know, the European Parliament has awarded him the organization's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought."

Mr. Paya, the leader of Cuba's Christian Liberation Movement, came to the United States after a tour of Europe and has not returned to Cuba since receiving the Sakharov Prize in Strasbourg on December 17.

Last September, he was also named the winner of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute's Averell Harriman Democracy Award but was not allowed to leave Cuba at the time to receive it in person.

The Varela Project, named for Cuban independence hero Felix Varela, seeks to use a provision of the current Cuban constitution that nominally allows citizens to propose changes to the law, provided an enabling petition receives at least ten thousand signatures.

Organizers say that despite official harassment, the Varela petition has been signed by more than 20-thousand Cubans to date, and had more than 11,000 signatures when submitted to the Cuban National Assembly in May of 2001.

After visiting former U.S. President Jimmy Carter mentioned the petition drive in a TV address to Cubans in May of last year, the Fidel Castro government mounted what it said was a counter petition in which it said nearly 99 per cent of the country supported keeping the current communist system.

Spokesman Boucher said there was no specific discussion in Secretary Powell's meeting with Mr. Paya of various U.S. programs aimed at supporting Cuban democratization.