Raul Castro called mounting international pressure over Cuba's human rights record one of the strongest assaults its communist government has ever faced and vowed not to yield to the "blackmail" of a high-profile hunger striker.
In a 45-minute nationally televised speech, Cuba's president said his government has the right to beat back any efforts to destabilize it.
"We will never yield to the blackmail of any country or group of countries, no matter how powerful they may be, whatever happens," said Castro, who replaced his older brother Fidel — first temporarily, then permanently — following his emergency intestinal surgery in 2006. "Let them know that if they try to corner us, we will defend ourselves, first of all with truth and principles."
Cuba's human rights situation has become increasingly tense since the Feb. 23 death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo after a long hunger strike in jail. Another man, freelance opposition journalist Guillermo Farinas, has refused to eat or drink since shortly after Zapata Tamayo's death — though he is allowing himself to be fed intravenously periodically at a hospital near his home in Santa Clara, a city in central Cuba.
Castro did not mention either by name, but clearly referred to them, saying Farinas' efforts were sponsored by forces in the United States and Europe out to topple Cuba's government, and that they had been glorified by "Western media."
He noted that Farinas is not behind bars, saying "he is a free person who has already served his sentence for common crimes." Castro said those included assaulting and threatening to kill the director of a hospital, but did not elaborate.
He said Cuba would do all it could to care for Farinas and that the island's government did not want him to die — but added that could be what happens if Farinas continues his "self-destructive" behavior.
It was not the smoothest of speeches for Castro, who spoke slowly and stumbled over his prepared text a number of times. His comments at Havana's convention center concluded the congress of the Young Communist Union, where a new generation of party leaders and community officials gathered to discuss a future without the president and his older brother Fidel.
Some of the island's best-known "youth" leaders are well over 30, but Fidel Castro turns 84 in August and Raul is close to 79. The president's hand-picked No. 2, communist hard-liner Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, is a year older than Raul.
Zapata Tamayo had been imprisoned since 2003 on charges including disrespecting authority. He became the first Cuban imprisoned opposition figure to die after a hunger strike in nearly four decades.
Castro said previously that his government very much regretted what happened but denied that Zapata Tamayo was tortured and blamed problems on the island on Washington's 48-year trade embargo.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the European Parliament condemned Cuba for Zapata Tamayo's death, and a group of artists and intellectuals including Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar have circulated a petition criticizing the Cuban government. Amnesty International has called for the release of all Cuban political prisoners.
Cuba brands all dissidents, Zapata Tamayo, Farinas and any other political activists who openly oppose its single-party system, as common criminals who are paid by the United States to destabilize the political system. It says every country should have the right to jail traitors.
Also Sunday, Castro repeated what has become a common refrain in recent speeches, saying that unless the government reduces wasteful spending, it will have to make cuts to the free education and health care it provides all islanders.
"Without a sound and dynamic economy and the removal of superfluous expenses and waste, it will neither be possible to improve the living standard of the population nor to preserve and improve the high levels of education and healthcare ensured to every citizen free of charge," he said.
He also chided the Obama administration for doing little to thaw nearly half a century of ice-cold U.S.-Cuba relations.
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