Cuban dissidents start push to change constitution

HAVANA Mon Jun 25, 2007 7:55pm EDT

HAVANA (Reuters) - A prominent Cuban dissident group launched a campaign on Monday to push for constitutional reforms that would allow for democratic elections and greater respect for human rights in the communist country.

The campaign is the latest in a series of calls for political and economic changes by opposition groups on the island since Cuban leader Fidel Castro fell ill almost 11 months ago and temporarily handed over power to his younger brother, Raul.

The most recent push is led Oswaldo Paya, a dissident with close ties to the Catholic Church who five years ago gained international notoriety by gathering 25,000 signatures calling for a referendum on civil liberties that became known as the Varela Project.

The new project, dubbed the Cuban Campaign Forum, urges Cubans of all political stripes to join forces to demand free elections for a Constituent Assembly that would amend the constitution.

"It is time for Cubans to open the doors of the future, using legal and peaceful means," Paya said in a joint statement with Minervo Chil Siret, a member of the Christian Liberation Movement that Paya leads.

Few Cubans are likely aware of the effort because opposition groups do not have access to the state-run media, but organizers plan to spread the news by word of mouth.

The campaign also calls on Cuba's opposition groups, which are fragmented and frequently infiltrated by government agents, to refrain from dialogue with the Cuban regime until it releases all political prisoners.

Independent rights groups in Cuba estimate that about 280 dissidents are in prison for political reasons. Many governments and international rights groups also criticize Cuba for limiting free speech, Internet access and travel.

DIALOGUE?

The Cuban government dismisses those claims as unfounded and says there are no political prisoners on the island, only "counterrevolutionary mercenaries" on the payroll of its archenemy, the United States.

Opposition groups like Paya's are outlawed but often tolerated in Cuba, a one-party state ruled by Castro since a revolution in 1959.

Last week, a coalition of moderate dissidents known as the Alliance for Dialogue and Reconciliation called on fellow opposition groups to unite and seek a constructive dialogue with the Cuban government.

But the government, which insists there will be no change to the political system, has shown no signs of willingness to negotiate with the dissidents.

"We want a dialogue that doesn't break with existing institutions," Paya told Reuters. "But if the government doesn't want to talk, there isn't going to be any dialogue."

There have been calls before for unity among Cuban dissidents. But those efforts failed, derailed by personal rivalries and differing political visions.

(Additional reporting by Esteban Israel)

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