Cuban Should Be Awarded Nobel Prize for Nuts of Iron

HAVANA -- A top democracy activist launched a new challenge to Fidel Castro's government, turning in more than 14,000 signatures of people seeking a human rights referendum just six months after a crackdown on the opposition. Does he like the prison food?

It was the second year in a row that activist Oswaldo Paya has delivered piles of signatures to the government as part of the Varela Project -- seen as the biggest homegrown, nonviolent effort in more than four decades to push for reforms in Cuba's one-party system. I don't know that I would have the guts to sign his paper.

In turning in the 14,384 new signatures on Friday, Paya said he was determined to keep pressing for the referendum, even though the government had rejected the first package of thousands of signatures delivered in May 2002. I'm sure they reconsider now that more people have signed on.

He said the continued mobilization of Cubans demanding human rights on this communist-run island was more important than the government's acceptance of the project. Mobilizing people in protest of a totalitarian regime for human rights - just don't have any big demonstrations in a square or anything.

"Hope is reborn," Paya told reporters after the petitions were accepted by a government clerk. "Cuba needs changes and there is a citizen vanguard willing to achieve them." I don't think I'm that optimistic for change in Cuba.

The petitions propose a referendum asking voters if they favor civil liberties like freedom of speech and assembly, and amnesty for political prisoners. They also seek changes in election laws. What elections?

"The Varela Project lives," Paya told reporters Friday morning in a hastily called news conference at his Havana home. "The campaign continues across the country."

He then went to the National Assembly, accompanied by his wife, Ofelia, and another project volunteer. Paya lugged the large box stuffed with petitions lined with signatures up the concrete stairs of the government building as a small group of journalists and curious neighbors looked on. Hopefully, from an angle that is not in the line of fire.

Last year, he brought 11,020 signatures, but lawmakers shelved the petition, saying that the changes sought were unconstitutional. Friday's signatures are all new, Paya said, bringing to 25,404 the combined total of signatures submitted.

Paya says that tens of thousands of other signatures have been seized by state security officials. There was no immediate response from Castro's government. I think they are trying to tell you something.

Dozens of petition workers have been picked up for questioning in recent weeks, Paya told reporters Friday. None were formally charged, he said. Castro is certainly much more forgiving than Sadaam.

In a letter to National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon delivered with the petitions, Paya said that many Varela Project volunteers were among 75 dissidents who were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms in the spring.

Governments around the world have condemned the crackdown, which began in March.

"The majority of these, the prisoners of the Cuban spring, suffer unjust imprisonment and are an example of the strength and dedication of our people," Paya wrote in his letter.

"The rights that we demand in the Varela Project are enunciated in the constitution. But we also have them because we are human beings, sons of God," he added. "And because of that will we continue demanding them for all Cubans, with the faith that we will achieve them." If Cuba ever does become free, they will owe ths guy a large debt.

Paya has emerged in recent years as Cuba's best known opposition activist and has been acknowledged by rights groups and leaders the world over.

His name has also been mentioned among possible nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize, to be announced on Oct. 10.

Posted by: Super Hose 2003-10-04