By Pascal Fletcher
HAVANA, Feb 17 (Reuters) - A senior Cuban official on Wednesday defended the country's tough new penalties for criminals and political opponents, saying they were warranted in light of growing U.S. political and economic pressure.
Ricardo Alarcon, the president of Cuba's National Assembly, told a news conference in Havana the United States was intensifying what he called a policy of "systematic aggression" against Cuba.
"That policy seeks the death of a country, of a nation," he said, and a nation fighting for survival "has the right to use every means" to defend itself.
Alarcon was defending tough anti-crime legislation approved on Tuesday by the National Assembly and a new measure that aims to curb internal dissent that might benefit the United States, Cuba's main political enemy.
The criminal law expanded the use of the death penalty, and the anti-subversion law established lengthy jail terms for political opponents judged to be "collaborating" with the U.S. government's hostile economic embargo against Cuba. A 30-year maximum jail term proposed in the original draft subversion law was reduced to 20 years in the final version approved.
Alarcon said the new legislation was a direct response to the 1996 Helms Burton Law, which tightened the long-running U.S. embargo and backed opposition groups on the island opposed to the one-party communist government.
"In reality, this (U.S.) blockade has intensified ... Cuba has the obligation to use judicial and penal measures to confront this application of the blockade," he said.
He heaped scorn on U.S. President Bill Clinton's proposal on Jan. 5 for changes in the embargo. U.S. officials portrayed the proposals as intended to help the Cuban people by allowing a broader range of cash remittances and an increase in the number of flights to the country.
But the economic and political squeeze on Cuba remained largely intact.
Cuban officials rejected the U.S. measures as a public relations ploy that actually concealed a strategy to increase support for anti-government opponents and subversion.
"You have to be schizophrenic to think that there has been any easing (of the U.S. embargo)," Alarcon said.
"Those (U.S.) measures are just a desperate effort to confuse, to deceive and to maintain the same policy," he added.
Alarcon said the U.S. authorities had recently taken action to halt the activities of a U.S. group, Global Exchange, that had sought to organize visits by U.S. citizens to Cuba in defiance of U.S. government restrictions under the embargo.
"Where the devil is the easing (of the embargo)?" he asked.
Alarcon was asked whether the vague wording of the latest Cuban measures, which referred to "counter-revolutionaries and annexationists," suggested that any form of criticism of or opposition to the Cuban government would be vulnerable to prosecution, whether it was linked to the United States or not.
He replied that after so many years of U.S. hostility, the Cuban government could not conceive of any kind of political opposition on the island that was not linked to U.S. policy.
"That's the kind (of opposition) we've always known," he said.
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