- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2003

HAVANA — Cuban President Fidel Castro led hundreds of thousands of Cubans yesterday in a march outside the Spanish Embassy to protest what he sees as Europe’s alignment with U.S. policies toward the communist island.

Surrounded by security men and his closest aides, Mr. Castro led them past the white, colonial Spanish mission. The demonstration lasted about two hours, but the 76-year-old communist leader stayed for only about 10 minutes.

“Down with fascism,” an announcer chanted over a public-address system along the coastal highway in Old Havana. “Long live the revolution.”

Marchers carried small red, white and blue Cuban flags and signs accusing Spain’s prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, of being a U.S. puppet.

European officials have joined U.S. officials in protesting Cuba’s imprisonment of 75 political dissidents for terms of up to 28 years and its execution of three men who hijacked a ferry in an attempt to flee the island.

The protests, which paralyzed traffic and business in the capital, came in response to the European Union’s announcement last month that it will review its policies toward Cuba. The 15-nation bloc is the economically struggling island’s largest source of trade and tourism.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, Mr. Castro’s brother and designated successor, Defense Minister Gen. Raul Castro, headed a march outside the Italian Embassy.

One sign showed Italian Prime Silvio Berlusconi with strings attached to his hands. “Berlusconi: are you, or are you not a puppet?” it said.

Using tough language usually reserved for Washington, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque lashed out Wednesday at the EU, accusing Spain of funding dissident groups supported by the United States.

Mr. Perez Roque also criticized Italy for cutting numerous cultural and cooperation programs with Cuba to protest the crackdown on the opposition and the firing-squad executions of the three men who hijacked the ferry and tried to reach the United States.

“After exhausting its patience and capacity for dialogue and tolerance, Cuba feels obliged to reply to what it considers to be the European Union’s hypocritical behavior,” the foreign minister said at a news conference.

In Brussels on Wednesday, EU spokesman Diego de Ojeda declined to specifically address Cuba’s charges, instead repeating the bloc’s desire “to integrate Cuba back into the community of democratic and market-economy nations.”

In its statement last week, the EU said it was “deeply concerned about the continuing flagrant violation of human rights and of fundamental freedoms of members of the Cuban opposition and of independent journalists.”

EU members unanimously agreed to cut down on high-level governmental visits, reduce participation of member states in cultural events on the island and review relations overall.

In April, the 75 activists were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years on charges of working with American diplomats to subvert the island’s socialist system. Both the dissidents and U.S. officials deny the allegations.

Ramon Colas, a prominent Cuban dissident and former political prisoner, warned that Mr. Castro’s crackdown hasn’t ended.

“Now others are being arrested,” he told a news conference in New York Wednesday. “We’re knocking on all doors to plead to the world to help us so that we can avoid a greater tragedy in Cuba.”

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