Castro leads march against US crackdown

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The Independent US

President Fidel Castro led a sea of Cuban demonstrators past the American diplomatic mission in Havana yesterday to protest against the latest American attempt to squeeze the economy and topple his government.

President Fidel Castro led a sea of Cuban demonstrators past the American diplomatic mission in Havana yesterday to protest against the latest American attempt to squeeze the economy and topple his government.

Tens of thousands of protesters, many wearing red shirts and waving small Cuban flags made of paper, marched along the Malecon, Havana's harbour boulevard, in the protest organised by the Government.

The Cuban leader denounced and ridiculed the US President, George Bush, saying he was a fraudulently elected leader trying to impose "world tyranny". He vowed that Communist Cuba would never become a "neo-colony" of the United States.

Posters portrayed Mr Bush wearing a Hitler moustache alongside a Nazi swastika, while others carried pictures of Iraqi prisoners allegedly abused by US soldiers, with the slogan: "This would never happen in Cuba." Fervent demonstrators led the crowd in chants of "Long live free Cuba! Fascist Bush!" President Castro, 77, dressed in his trademark green military uniform and field cap, walked slowly at the head of the march for about 750 metres, sometimes waving a small flag, before leaving in a waiting car.

The leader said the march was "an act of indignant protest, and a denunciation of the brutal, merciless and cruel measures" that Bush announced last week to tighten the 44-year US embargo of the island. The measures include restrictions on money transfers and family visits, increased efforts to transmit anti-Castro television to Cuba and the appointment of a co-ordinator to plan a change from socialism to capitalism.

"This country could be exterminated ... erased from the face of the earth," President Castro told the crowd. But he said it would never fall into "the humiliating condition of a neo-colony of the United States", vowing that if armed conflict comes, he would be "in the first line of defence, ready to die in defence of my people".

He went on to accuse the United States of fighting "wars of conquest to seize the markets and resources of the world", while Cuba was sending abroad thousands of doctors to save lives. He insisted that Bush had "neither morality nor any right at all to speak of liberty, democracy and human rights".

Of Bush's disputed 2000 election, Castro said "all the world knows it was fraudulent." He referred briefly to the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, saying the tortures had "stupefied the world" and he insisted that Cuba had never practiced such torture.

The Cuban government said that a million people attended yesterday's protest. The figure could not be confirmed. The demonstration had been organised through people's workplaces and neighbourhoods, and most state employees had been granted the day off.

The march had been announced on Tuesday, a day after the government stunned Cubans by suddenly halting most of the island's retail sales in US dollars, which residents have come to rely on due to the scarcity of products sold in Cuban pesos. Only food, personal hygiene products and petrol are exempt from the ban. Officials have promised that the measures are temporary, but said prices would rise when the dollar-only stores reopen. They blamed the US tightening of its embargoes.

The new US measures are directly intended to cut the amount of hard currency on the island by limiting how often Cuban-Americans can visit relatives, decreasing how much they can spend and prohibiting money transfers to Cuban officials and Communist Party members.

President Bush said the United States would also spend $59m (£33m) over the next two years to promote the goal of a democratic Cuba, including US$18m to counter Cuba's jamming of anti-Castro broadcasts.

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