HAVANA - Cuban President Fidel Castro led hundreds of thousands of Cubans in a massive march in Havana on Friday to protest new steps taken by the United States to squeeze Cuba's economy and topple its communist government.
Workers and students wearing red shirts and soldiers and military cadets in uniform marched waving Cuban flags along Havana's waterfront past the American diplomatic mission, shouting slogans against President Bush.
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans walk along Havana's seafront during a protest march May 14, 2004. Cuban President Fidel Castro led the march past the U.S. Interest Section (building on top - R) to protest against new steps taken by the United States to squeeze Cuba's economy and topple Castro's government. REUTERS/HO/Courtesy AIN
"Bush, you fascist, there is no aggression that Cuba cannot resist," they chanted during the more than three-hour march.
Authorities said one million people took part in the march organized by the government to repudiate what they see as U.S. meddling.
Castro denounced as "ruthless and cruel" measures adopted last week by the White House to step up support for Cuban dissidents and limit dollar remittances to Cubans and visits from their relatives in the United States.
The 77-year-old Cuban leader, wearing his trademark military fatigues and cap, looked frail and walked one mile with difficulty, at times leaning on a fellow marcher.
The U.S. measures aimed at speeding up democratic change on the Caribbean island were the latest in four decades of sanctions designed to oust Castro, in power since a 1959 revolution.
"You have no right whatsoever, except for that of brute force, to intervene in Cuba's affairs ... and proclaim the transition from one system to another and take measures to make this happen," Castro said in a speech that started the march.
Castro said Bush had no moral authority to speak of democracy and human rights in Cuba when his election to the White House was a "fraud" and U.S. troops were killing civilians in Iraq.
"The unbelievable torture applied to prisoners in Iraq has rendered the world speechless," Castro said.
"GENOCIDE AND FASCISM"
Marchers carried placards with photos of naked Iraqi prisoners taken by American soldiers, with a slogan saying: "This will never happen in Cuba."
Another showed Bush in a Nazi uniform sporting a Hitler mustache. A slogan said: "Down with genocide and fascism."
Castro's younger brother and designated political successor, Raul Castro, marched in uniform at the head of Cuban army generals and officers.
The government declared a holiday and brought Cubans into Havana in buses and trucks overnight from the countryside. Students were gathered at Havana University on Thursday night in preparation for the march.
In a move criticized as pandering to Cuban voters in Florida, Bush decided to limit visits by Cuban Americans to relatives in Cuba to one every three years and restrict their cash remittances to immediate family members.
He also prohibited sending money to government officials and members of the ruling Communist Party, to deprive what he called a "tyranny" of financial resources.
Experts believe the new U.S. sanctions will barely dent the flow of an estimated $800 million a year to Cuba, a vital injection of cash for Cuba's battered socialist economy.
Cuban authorities, however, suspended sales of all but food and toiletries in dollar shops on Monday, warning of price increases and tough times ahead, as they seized on the issue to bash Bush's policies and rally support.
Castro defended Cuban socialism which had achieved literacy and educational levels of an industrialized nation and an infant mortality rate lower than the United States.
"You are attacking Cuba for petty, political reasons, trying to obtain electoral support from a shrinking group of renegades," he said in reference to Cuban American exiles in Miami.
"The United States should not interfere in our countries," said Veronica Jordan, a Venezuelan studying medicine in Cuba. "Bush is poking his nose in places where he is not wanted."
© Copyright Reuters 2004