Cuba May Day march to counter human rights critics

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HAVANA (AP) — Cuba will use its annual May Day march as a huge show of popular support for the Castro government, its latest attempt to defend itself from criticism over human rights on the island.

An editorial in the Communist Party newspaper Granma titled "We defend the truth with our morals and principles" blasted the U.S. government Thursday, saying "the empire and its allies have launched a new crusade to demonize Cuba."

The editorial was similar to several opinion pieces in state-controlled newspapers recently that have blamed the foreign press, Washington and governments in Europe for glorifying dissidents Orlando Zapata Tamayo and Guillermo Farinas.

Zapata Tamayo died in February after a lengthy prison hunger strike, and Farinas has been refusing food and water for six weeks.

"On May 1, you will receive from our people and workers a resounding and unequivocal answer in support of the revolution," proclaimed the editorial, which took up the entire front page.

The revolution refers to the uprising that forced dictator Fulgencio Batista to flee and swept Fidel Castro to power on New Year's Day 1959.

Cuba traditionally marks International Workers' Day with hundreds of thousands marching through Havana's Plaza of the Revolution — though Fidel Castro no longer speaks since undergoing emergency surgery and disappearing from public view in 2006.

The demonstration is always a pro-government celebration, with many islanders waving pictures of Fidel Castro and his younger brother Raul skyward. But Granma formally declaring it as such is unusual and reflects mounting tensions.

Zapata Tamayo became the first Cuban opposition figure to die after a hunger strike in nearly 40 years, and his case drew condemnation from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the European Union. Farinas is not in prison but says he will keep refusing food and water until he dies — though he has received nutrients intravenously at a hospital near his home in the central city of Santa Clara.

The editorial said the U.S. and its allies "have set in motion a colossal operation of deception, with the objective of discrediting the revolutionary process, destabilizing the country and provoking conditions for the destruction of our social system."

Also Thursday, associates of Farinas in Havana announced he would be willing to halt his hunger strike if the government holds a referendum asking Cubans whether island political prisoners should be freed.

Cuban human rights leaders put the number of "prisoners of conscience" at about 200, while the government says it holds none. Authorities did not respond to the proposal, however, and those putting it forward said they were not optimistic it will lead to anything.

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