Cuban dissidents defy Castro, take to streets

 

Cuba's highest-profile dissidents marched Sunday defying President Raul Castro's warning, issued hours earlier, that foes of the communist regime were not welcome on Cuban streets.

"Our fight has been and will continue to be achieving freedom for political prisoners," said Laura Pollan, leader of the Ladies in White group of political prisoners' kin, as the group took to Havana streets.

The dissidents, who have been honored with the European Parliament's Sakharov prize, march most Sundays in Havana, dressed in white and carrying flowers, to draw attention to their relatives' plight.

But this Sunday was different: just hours earlier the president addressed the rare Cuban Communist party congress under way, putting political foes on notice that they would not find a public space or openness to anti-regime ideas.

"Defending the independence of the achievements of socialism, and our squares and streets, will continue to be the duty of all Cuban patriots," Castro stressed.

Pollan said Castro was inciting pro-government activists, who may believe they will be rewarded by the regime for actions against dissidents, to target her award-winning group.

The president "is giving free rein to (pro-regime) mobs to target people who are going out into the streets to protest or seek freedom" for prisoners, Pollan said.

"We cannot accept provocations like that; that is what the government wants as they seek to discredit us somehow," she added.

Raul Castro told the party meeting Saturday he backed term limits for top leadership positions in a country he and his brother Fidel Castro have led for more than five decades.

Fidel Castro, now 84, did not attend the festivities marking exactly half a century after he proclaimed the socialist character of the regime on the eve of the April 17, 1961, landing by 1,400 Cuban exiles armed and trained by the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Within just 72 hours of bloody combat on Playa Larga and Playa Giron some 200 kilometers (125 miles) southeast of Havana, Castro routed the invaders in what Cuba celebrates as "the first great defeat of (US) imperialism in Latin America."

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