U.S. Diplomat: Cubans Are Ready For Political Change

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Many Cubans are eager for political reform, says one U.S. diplomat, and they are using grassroots efforts to achieve those changes.

"The human rights activists have become the voice of the Cuban people and it is now reaching critical mass because they have persuaded the people to overcome their fears," said Vicki Huddleston, director of the U.S. Interests Section, at a press conference Thursday in Havana.

Huddleston said a large movement in Cuba called Operation Varela has collected more than 10,000 signatures of citizens calling for a voter referendum that would allow the people to decide whether certain freedoms, most notably the freedom of speech, should be reinstated in the communist nation.

According to a provision in the 1976 Cuban Constitution, such a referendum is permitted if at least 10,000 signatures are collected on a petition.

However, Huddleston said that despite the strong support of the project from the public, government officials are putting more pressure on the operation to stop.

"Intimidation of Operation Varela is getting worse," she said.

Operation Varela's founder, Oswaldo Paya, said earlier this month that the goal of the project is hand power back to the people.

"We are proposing a consultation with the people so they decide about change," Paya told Reuters news agency.

Paya said the proposed referendum would allow voters to decide on the need to guarantee the rights of free expression and association; an amnesty for political prisoners; more opportunities for private business; a new electoral law; and a general election.

The signatures will be presented to the Cuban National Assembly after they have been checked and ratified, Paya said.

Paya and the dissidents named their cause the "Varela Project" in honor of Father Felix Varela, a 19th century, pro-Cuban independence Roman Catholic priest.

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