VANESSA ARRINGTON | Associated Press
SANTA CLARA, Cuba - Communist Party faithful gathered in groups around this central city Monday for buses to take them to an evening speech where Fidel Castro was to respond to U.S. President George W. Bush’s recent charges about sex tourism on the island.
Red, white and blue Cuban flags hung from the sides of buildings throughout this provincial capital in observance of Revolution Day, marking the 51st anniversary of the failed July 26, 1953, attack on a military barracks that launched the Cuban revolution.
“With the heroism of always,” declared a banner hanging over a street in this city about 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) east of Havana.
“Here, no one gives up!” read a poster on a building, recalling a historic slogan from the early days of the revolution Castro led. “To the nation’s heroes and martyrs,” read another poster.
The top leaders of Cuba’s ruling Communist Party were among the estimated 30,000 people expected at the annual event in Santa Clara, home to a major monument housing the remains of revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The event was also to be broadcast live on Cuba’s state-run television and radio.
Castro’s annual Revolution Day speech is considered among his most important. Communist leaders consider July 26 Cuba’s true independence day and do not recognize the May 20 holiday celebrated by anti-Castro Cuban exiles to mark the island’s independence from Spain.
Castro, who turns 78 next month, has been in power for 45 years, making him the world’s longest ruling head of government. His island nation is among only five communist systems in the world and the only one in the Americas. The others are in Asia: Vietnam, China, North Korea and Laos.
The Cuban president “will give a resounding and well-argued response to the coarse, cynical and provocative accusations by Bush against Cuba,” The Communist Party daily Granma said over the weekend.
During a speech in Tampa, Florida, earlier this month, Bush accused Castro of exploiting Cuba’s children by encouraging a sex-tourism industry designed to attract U.S. dollars to the impoverished nation.
“The regime in Havana, already one of the worst violators of human rights in the world, is adding to its crimes. Castro welcomes sex tourism,” Bush said at the July 16 conference on “human trafficking” - forced labor, sex and military service.
Bush says Castro has turned Cuba into a major destination for sex tourism, which is “a vital source of hard currency to keep his corrupt government afloat.”
Although prostitution does exist on the island, it is unorganized and has been far less visible since Castro launched a massive crackdown on street crime in early 1999.
By combining the human-trafficking issue with his criticisms against Castro, Bush hopes to bolster his standing with Cuban-Americans in Florida - the state that decided the 2000 election.
In a report last month, the U.S. State Department listed Cuba among 10 nations that engage in human trafficking.