Castro says won’t yield

HAVANA, Cuba — 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.

HAVANA, Cuba — 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 said 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” behaviour.

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 centre 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.