Cuban dissidents defy Castro, take to streets

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

The dissidents, who have been honoured 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.

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