HAVANA — Chanting “Down with Fascism!” and carrying posters depicting President Bush as Adolf Hitler, hundreds of thousands of Cubans on Friday protested the measures announced last week by the White House aimed at bringing democracy to this communist state.
Kicking off the demonstration, Cuban President Fidel Castro read a speech directed at Bush, telling him the march was “a denunciation of the brutal, ruthless and cruel measures” that seek to tighten the four-decade trade embargo against the island.
The 77-year-old Castro, dressed in his familiar olive green military uniform and hat, charged that Bush was trying to impose “world tyranny” but said Cuba “cannot be subjugated nor put once again into the humiliating position of a neo-colony of the United States.”
Castro said Bush and his allies had turned world politics into a “madhouse.” The Cuban leader ended his speech by comparing himself to a Roman gladiator about to enter battle, saying he was ready to “die fighting in defense of my homeland.”
Holding a small Cuban flag, Castro then briefly led the march along Havana’s sweeping seafront boulevard, the Malecon, before leaving. He said the demonstration drew a million people.
The march swept past the U.S. Interests Section building – the seat of American diplomacy in Havana – and continued for hours as a sea of Cubans listened to a stream of speakers bark denunciations of Bush broadcast over huge loudspeakers.
Among the measures announced last week by President Bush are tightened limits on the money Cubans living in the United States can legally send to relatives on the island and a sharp reduction in the number of visits they can make.
The United States also is set to spend about $58 million over the next two years helping to promote democracy in Cuba, including improving Radio and TV Marti – the U.S.-funded anti-Castro broadcasts – so they can evade Cuba’s jamming.
Some experts predict the measures will have at most a modest effect on the Cuban economy. But Cuban officials describe them in draconian terms, saying the steps will further batter the economy and set the stage for possible U.S. military action.
In response, Cuba halted the sale of products sold in dollars that many Cubans rely on to make up for the scarce supply of goods sold for Cuban pesos. The so-called dollar stores are expected to reopen in coming days with higher prices.
Cuban officials also began organizing Friday’s march, which in recent days has been widely promoted in the state-controlled media.
In television broadcasts, President Bush was compared to Hitler and Cuba to Iraq. Photos of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners have been shown repeatedly, with broadcasters saying Bush would treat Cubans in a similar manner if given the chance.
Most Havana residents were given the day off work and school to attend the march, which was touted by officials as the largest ever.