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By Kevin Sullivan
President Fidel Castro said today that the U.S. government was run by "extremists" and "hawks" whose military response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington could turn into an "infinite killing of innocent people."
"Their capacity to destroy and kill is enormous, but their traits of equanimity, serenity, reflection and caution are, on the other hand, minimal," Castro said, addressing more than 50,000 flag-waving Cubans in this small tobacco-producing town 20 miles south of Havana.
"In the name of justice and under the strange title of 'Infinite Justice,' the tragedy should not be used to irresponsibly start a war that, in reality, could turn into an infinite killing of innocent people," said Castro, whose government's statements about the attacks have grown increasingly shrill.
The speech marked Castro's first appearance at an "open tribunal," Cuba's weekly political rallies, since he fainted at one in June, causing speculation about the 75-year-old leader's health. Today, Castro looked fit as he spoke for more than 40 minutes in 90-plus-degree heat and smothering humidity in his trademark heavy, green military fatigues. Castro recited several passages from President Bush's address to Congress on Thursday. He said Bush's call to arms could turn into a "struggle against ghosts they don't know where to find -- if they exist or not -- [and] whether those they will kill have any responsibility" in the terror attacks. In the "strange holy war that is about to start, it's impossible to tell on which side there is more fanaticism," he said.
Cuba's tone on the attacks has hardened since Sept. 11, when Castro gave a speech expressing "profound grief and sadness for the American people." At that time, he also said Cuba has been subjected to U.S. "terrorism" since he took power in the 1959 socialist revolution, but the speech was remarkably conciliatory. Though Castro is one of Washington's oldest rivals, and Cuba is one of seven countries on the State Department list of terrorism sponsors, Cuban musicians donated blood for the attack victims and Cuba offered other humanitarian aid, largely setting aside its contention that the four-decade-old U.S. economic embargo constitutes "economic terrorism."
Relations between Cuba and the United States have chilled since Bush took office in January promising to adopt a tougher line on the Western Hemisphere's last Communist leader. On July 26, Castro led an anti-American march, estimated by Cuban authorities to number more than 1.2 million people, past the U.S. Interests Section, the de facto U.S. embassy on the Malecon, Havana's famous seaside boulevard.
In June, five Cuban men were convicted in U.S. courts of spying for Cuba, and they have become national heroes here. In a plea agreement Thursday, two other defendants in the same case pleaded guilty to one count each of acting as unregistered agents of Cuba. Today, Castro spoke before five large portraits of the men, and many people in the crowd wore T-shirts bearing their pictures and slogans calling them "prisoners of the empire" or praising their "heroic behavior in the belly of the monster."
Castro made no mention today of the high-ranking official at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency who was arrested Friday and charged with spying for Cuba.
In the wake of the terror attacks, as the Bush administration has shifted from grief to war planning, Cuba has shifted its emphasis from sympathy for the victims to condemnation of U.S. policy.
Recent government statements, believed to reflect Castro's views, have said the "chickens have come home to roost" for a nation that has "for more than five decades promoted terrorism on an enormous scale across the globe." Opinions on nightly television news "round-tables," which largely promote the government line, have also grown increasingly sharp.
An official statement carried on Radio Havana on Tuesday accused the United States of training Latin American military personnel in "the techniques of torture and terrorism" at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, renamed this year the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. It said the United States "introduced the world to nuclear holocaust, to carpet bombing, to horrendous use of phosphorous and napalm bombs."
A statement Wednesday by Cuba's mission to the United Nations described the U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attacks as "fascist and terrorist" and said Washington was using its war on terrorism as a pretext to establish "unrestricted tyranny over all people on Earth."
Participants at today's rally reflected Castro's line: sorrow for the American people and those who were killed or wounded, but condemnation of U.S. policy toward Cuba. A girl of about 10, in a school uniform and with a blond ponytail, warmed up the crowd and a national television audience from the microphone onstage, shouting about "imperialist violence" but offering her "most sincere condolences to the people of the United States." She broke down in tears as she left the stage.
One speaker offered "conditional support" to people in the land of "Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln," then blasted Washington's support for "lying businessmen" and "selfish, hegemonic practices."
After Castro drove off in his black Mercedes sedan, Isachy Reyes Reyes, an elementary school principal, stood in the suddenly deserted field of mud and said she hoped Bush would find a way to attack terrorism without using military force. Her friend Benito Alonso Gonzales, manager of a tobacco warehouse, also professed pacifism until reminded that Castro's Cuba was born in violence -- a military uprising to overthrow a dictatorship. Then he said that sometimes violence is justified.
"I think the whole world is demanding that the ones who did this be punished," he said. "But nobody has the right to take justice into their own hands."