Cuba's Two Petitions

The Washington Post  Editorial, Wednesday, June 19, 2002; Page A20

WHEN FEELING threatened, Fidel Castro has a stock response: Order the Cuban people to participate in a mass demonstration. It's an old technique of totalitarianism that offers the dual benefit of providing the outside world with an illusion of strength while reminding citizens that the state controls their lives to such an extent that it can force them to join such spectacles. So something must have thrown a real scare into the 75-year-old dictator: Last week he orchestrated a forced march through the center of Havana and dozens of other towns that, by the official account, rounded up 8 million of Cuba's 11 million people. Then he forced the country's voting population to line up again beginning last weekend to sign a petition that calls for his failed Soviet-style economic and political system to be enshrined as "untouchable" in the national constitution.

Naturally, Mr. Castro said he was only responding to provocation from the United States, the excuse for most everything he does; President Bush recently delivered a speech calling for democracy in Cuba and reaffirming his support for the U.S. economic embargo. But it isn't hard to figure out what really has the old Communist worried: the Varela Project, a remarkable home-grown movement that managed to collect 11,000 signatures of Cubans on a genuine grass-roots petition. This one, delivered to the National Assembly in May, calls for a national referendum on restoring freedom of speech and association and free enterprise, releasing political prisoners and staging genuine multiparty elections -- rights that every other Latin American country and almost all of the former Soviet bloc already enjoy. Rather than allow his rubber-stamp parliament to consider the Varela petition -- as called for by his own constitution -- Mr. Castro apparently intends to squash it by substituting his own referendum, one that would nominally rule out the consideration of such democratic reforms in the future.

The most remarkable thing about the Varela Project is that it was accomplished in almost the opposite way from Mr. Castro's heavy-handed projects. It was done entirely by volunteers rather than appointees, people who, instead of earning their usual salaries, risked arrest. It received no publicity from Cuba's state-controlled media; many Cubans learned of it only last month, when former president Jimmy Carter visited Havana and mentioned it briefly in a television address. The thousands of Cubans who signed it did so because they believe in the project enough to risk punishment for publicly supporting it. By those standards, 11,000 signatures is a telling number: They show where Cubans will go as soon as Mr. Castro is gone. Seeing them inspired the dictator to collect 7.4 million signatures of his own in a desperate effort to ensure that his regime will survive him. It won't be enough.

2002 The Washington Post Company