Challenge to Castro

For the second time in 17 months, a group of courageous Cuban citizens is challenging Fidel Castro's economically, morally, and politically bankrupt regime. Led by dissident leader Oswaldo Payá, a devout Roman Catholic, more than 14,000 Cubans have signed a petition calling for a referendum on human and democratic rights.

Cuba's constitution calls for holding a referendum if 10,000 people support it. Mr. Castro - like most Communists, not much of a stickler for legal details - responded to the first petition drive with his own, which resulted in a constitutional amendment labeling the current system "irrevocable."

Castro's secret police have systematically harassed the petition movement, known as the Varela Project, as it seeks to force a vote. They have seized petitions and detained dozens of supporters for questioning. Last spring several project volunteers were among 75 dissidents sentenced to unconscionably long prison terms.

No one expects Castro to suddenly see the light and abandon totalitarianism. On the contrary, as the regime loses the hearts and minds of the people, it responds by tightening its grip.

Meanwhile, bipartisan efforts are afoot in Congress to ease the US trade and travel embargoes against Cuba. Their timing couldn't be worse. Supporters of a loosened US policy should inform the Cuban dictator that as long as he pursues his present course of increased political repression, those moves will be put on hold.

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