May 3, 1999

Cuba holds May Day rallies, blasts NATO "genocide''

By Andrew Cawthorne

HAVANA, May 1 (Reuters) - Chanting revolutionary slogans and denouncing NATO for ``genocide'' in Yugoslavia, millions of Cubans paraded on Saturday in vast May Day rallies across the island to show support for Fidel Castro's communist rule.

Flanked by Castro, union leader Pedro Ross Leal inaugurated the nation's biggest march, through Havana's Revolution Square, with a crowd-stirring condemnation of the strikes on the Serbs.

``To our workers, and to the world, we denounce that the barbarous genocide the United States and NATO are committing in Yugoslavia is a convincing proof of the hegemonic, expansionist and aggressive nature of imperialism,'' said Ross, who heads the official trade union, Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC).

``This massacre, the pitiless bombing of the civilian population, revives the terrible nightmare of fascism,'' added Ross, who is also a member of the Communist Party's Politburo, in a speech before the parade started.

Authorities said 7 million Cubans, out of a total population of 11 million, took part in Saturday's parades, one of the main events on the island's political calendar.

The government said 1 million people attended the Havana march, where Castro stood watching at the foot of a monument to Cuba's 19th century independence hero, Jose Marti, and opposite a massive portrait of guerrilla legend Ernesto ``Che'' Guevara.

With loudspeakers blaring patriotic songs, a long, colourful column of workers waving flags and banners advanced for several hours through Revolution Square. ``With the Fatherland, Fidel and Socialism Forever!,'' ``Down with the Yanqui Blockade!'' and ``Hands off Yugoslavia!'' read some of the slogans.

Soldiers, militia and police also paraded through the square.

In his speech, Ross said the ``enormous mass of workers and people'' were paying tribute to four decades of revolutionary government since Castro toppled former dictator Fulgencio Batista and took power on Jan. 1, 1959.

``We are reiterating to our dear commander in chief that today, like yesterday and tomorrow, we will defend our soil, our ideas and our socialism at whatever price it takes,'' he said to cheers and applause.

As at virtually all public rallies in Cuba, there were various swipes at Castro's arch-enemy over the decades, the United States. Ross condemned Washington's long-standing economic embargo on the island, and also slammed the ``Yankee scheming,'' which Havana alleges caused its recent defeat in a U.N. vote on Cuba's human rights' record.

He also congratulated Cuba's sugar workers who, for the first time in nine years, have just reached an official harvest target: 3.6 million tons for the 1998/99 crop.

In a brief reference to Cuba's new anti-subversion law, which has drawn criticism from governments and rights groups abroad as well as dissidents at home, Ross insisted the Cuban people were unanimously in favour of the legislation.

Castro, dressed in his trademark olive-green military fatigues, was greeted with roars of ``Fidel! Fidel!'' when he arrived for the parade. Using a pair of binoculars to watch the proceedings, he waved at marchers, saluted the soldiers and chatted with fellow leaders.

State media later quoted Castro as praising the Cuban people's patriotism, and saying the Havana rally was ``magnificent, above expectations ... one of the happiest.''

He noted, however, that the May Day celebrations were taking place ``in moments that are very sad and tough for humanity'' due to the ``genocide'' in Yugoslavia.

Cubans were summoned to the well-organised May Day parades by a barrage of official publicity in recent days portraying attendance at ``the proletarian party'' as a patriotic duty.

While there was a party atmosphere at the marches with numerous expressions of support for Castro, some Cubans grumbled privately that they felt obliged to attend the marches to keep up appearances and protect their positions at work.

Mingling with the crowd at the Havana rally was Washington's most senior diplomatic envoy to Cuba, Michael Kozak, who heads the U.S. Interests Section. The United States and Cuba have not had full embassies in each other's countries since diplomatic ties were broken in 1961.

16:53 05-01-99

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited