- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 13, 2002

HAVANA Defying calls here and in Washington for democratic reforms, Fidel Castro led a march of hundreds of thousands of people yesterday to ratify as "untouchable" the one-party socialist system that has ruled this Caribbean island for four decades.
Surrounded by security officers and other top communist officials, the Cuban leader, who celebrates his 76th birthday in August, started out with a slow but firm step down the Malecon coastal boulevard. He walked for about a mile, his usual distance in such events, before leaving the march.
Wearing his traditional olive-green uniform and cap and the black high-top athletic-style shoes he favors, Mr. Castro waved a small red, white and blue Cuban flag as the sea of people marched toward the U.S. Interests Section, the American mission.
"Long live socialism. Down with the lies," Mr. Castro shouted, referring to President Bush's May 20 Cuba policy speeches, in which Mr. Bush promised not to lift American trade and travel restrictions until Cuba held competitive elections and undertook other democratic reforms.
Mr. Castro's younger brother and designated successor, 71-year-old Defense Minister Raul Castro, headed a contingent of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces in the Havana march.
The Havana event coincided with about 800 marches around the island involving several million of the nation's 11 million citizens, the government said. Fidel Castro said 1 million people about half the capital's population were expected to participate in Havana.
State television, which carried the Havana march live, also showed images of large marches in the central and eastern provincial capitals of Matanzas, Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Holguin, Santiago and Las Tunas, the Isle of Youth off the main island's southern coast, and in the western provincial capital of Pinar del Rio.
"This is democracy," said one sign carried in the Havana march. "Fascism, no. Revolution, yes," read another, referring to Mr. Castro's recent description of Mr. Bush's international policies in the war against terrorism as "fascist."
Mr. Castro called for a massive march here and in cities across the island to support an amendment to the constitution, announced one month after activists submitted a proposed referendum for deep reforms in the socialist system.
The mobilization and the proposed amendment declaring Cuba's socialist system to be "untouchable" appear to be Mr. Castro's response to Project Varela, the proposed reform referendum.
The proposal asks lawmakers to ratify that "Cuba is a socialist state of workers, independent and sovereign, organized with all and for the good of all, as a unified and democratic republic, for the enjoyment of political liberty, social justice, individual and collective well-being, and human solidarity."
Project Varela organizers submitted more than 11,000 signatures to Cuba's National Assembly on May 10, demanding a referendum asking voters if they favored civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly, the right to own a business, electoral reform and amnesty for political prisoners.
Most Cubans first heard of Project Varela in mid-May when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter mentioned it in his live, uncensored television address to the Cuban people.
Mr. Castro has said nothing publicly about the project.


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