HAVANA – Fidel Castro directed a vast protest march past the U.S. mission here Tuesday, accusing the United States of preparing to free one of the hemisphere's worst terrorists as thousands of Cubans carried signs equating President Bush with Hitler.
The government-sponsored march coincides with a U.S. court deadline for evidence to be filed in the case of Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA operative and anti-Castro militant held on immigration charges at a detention center in El Paso, Texas. His lawyers are seeking his freedom as U.S. immigration authorities seek his deportation.
The Cuban president called Posada a "repugnant character" as well as a terrorist as he spoke to a sea of cheering Cubans along the coastal Malecon highway.
Cuba and Venezuela accuse the Cuban-born Posada of masterminding the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner and staging bombings in Havana in 1997 and 1998. Together the attacks killed 74 people. Castro also has accused Posada and his colleagues of plotting to assassinate him at a summit in Panama in November 2000.
"We don't want revenge, we just want justice," said Lucia Roja, a retired educator. Although she is 67 and diabetic, Roja said, "It's important to be here — I've never missed a march."
State-run television estimated 1.4 million people at the march. Those who attend government-sponsored marches are given the day off from work.
Organized by school, work and military groups, marchers waved little red, white and blue Cuban flags and chanted "Bush: fascist! Condemn the terrorist!" The 79-year-old Cuban leader watched the nearly seven-hour event, then marched himself at the end.
Another focus of Castro's ire is a new electronic sign installed outside the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which handles consular affairs in the absence of full diplomatic relations. The sign was activated as Castro began speaking Tuesday, relaying global news and quotes including Abraham Lincoln's: "No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent."
"They already turned on the little sign — the cockroaches are brave," Castro said before starting his speech.
The mission launched the sign a week ago with streaming text of sayings from Martin Luther King Jr. and excerpts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Cuba is a signatory.
"It's nonsense!" said Carla Smith, a 61-year-old lawyer among the marchers. "Within a few days, we'll have forgotten all about them."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he did not see why messages containing quotes about freedom "should be such a source of concern for the Cuban government."
Posada was arrested in Miami in May on charges he entered the United States illegally. His Miami lawyer, Eduardo Soto, filed documents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials on Monday seeking his release from custody.
The ICE said today that while a judge had forbidden Posada's deportation to Venezuela or Cuba, for fear that he would be tortured there, the agency was still seeking to expel him to a third country.