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Saturday, September 16, 2006

World leaders need little policing in Castro's Cuba

HAVANA, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Impenetrable cordons of gun-toting police and soldiers mark most meetings of world leaders, but only handfuls of nonchalant, lightly-armed cops patrol the non-aligned nations summit in laid-back Havana.

The message is clear: the communist island, ruled by Fidel Castro since 1959, has permanently tight law and order.

"There is no need for security. There are 11 million of us Cubans, four million people and seven million police," joked a recent law graduate, sipping a mojito in a bar. He wished to be known only as "Juan".

Deputy Foreign Minister Manuel Aguilera has declared Havana offers "exceptionally safe" conditions for the summit.

And Cuba's intelligence agents would agree such confidence is well-placed, boasting they have thwarted more than 600 assassination attempts against Castro, who has even survived a CIA plot to poison him with a toxic wetsuit.

Police strolling around the summit's venues have no visible machine guns, pepper sprays or gas masks.

Orlando, a chef strolling past the pastel-colored colonial buildings of the old city, agreed with "Juan" that scrupulous policing in Cuba had long been part of the culture.

"I love my country but it is not a perfect place. There are a lot of police and you can always end up at the station," he said.

Cuba insists it needs to maintain its tight security apparatus to ward off aggression from the United States, which backed the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and several attempts to kill Castro. Dissident groups say the intelligence services abuse civil liberties to support Castro.

While most world summits also play host to protests from anti-globalization activists and human rights groups, there has not been one demonstrator at the summit.

Cuban officials declined to give numbers for their security forces or for those sent to cover the summit.

There have been some perceptible security measures, with Havana stopping direct flights to Miami, heartland of Cuba's exiled opposition. Central parts of the city have far fewer hawkers and prostitutes than normal due to increase policing.

Police shut off some roads around key buildings including hotels, upsetting Habaneros who sometimes used to enjoy restaurants, bars and pizzerias there. Cuba's rickshaws have been banned from the city center.

Shopkeepers said business had slowed a little because of police keeping cars off central boulevards, distinguished by wrought-iron balconies and peeling paintwork,

"There was one guy who wanted to go swimming in the Riviera hotel and they said it was closed to people not attached to the summit," grumbled taxi driver Miguel, cruising along Havana's Malecon waterfront.
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