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Castro rejects Chretien's plea for Cuban reforms

During two long meetings, the Canadian prime minister asked for political changes and prisoner releases. Tuesday, Fidel Castro said no.

Immediately after seeing Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien off at the airport, a buoyant Castro declared: "We are not going to change. We are going to continue defending our cause and our socialism."

The Cuban leader made it clear to reporters he would not bend to pressure for reforms from either foes such as the United States or friends such as Canada.

"The revolution is the biggest change there's been in history and we're not going to renounce that," Castro said, when asked about Chretien's call for change.

The Cuban leader, who stayed up until the early hours of Tuesday talking with Chretien, showed no sign of agreeing to the Canadian leader's personal appeal for the release of four leading dissidents jailed on the island.

"We have not made any type of commitment in relation to that," Castro said. He added that Cuba was not the only nation with prisoners who have committed crimes against the state, and said there were hundreds of such inmates in Europe.

Castro insisted that if there is to be change, it will not come through outside threats:

"We do not cede to pressures."

However, Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in January helped lead to greater freedoms for the church in a country where believers were barred from sensitive jobs until the early 1990s.

"There is a new climate of relations between the state and church," Cardinal Jaime Ortega told reporters Monday. The prelate added, however, that "the time has been too short to speak of a remarkable improvement or evolution."

Cuba also freed some 100 political prisoners at the pope's request, and human rights activists here say the number of political prisoners has declined by about 60 percent over the past 18 months.

Chretien arrived in Cuba on Sunday wanting to stress both Ottawa's independence from Washington's policy of isolating Cuba and its belief that "constructive engagement" with the island could bring change.

On the plane back home Tuesday afternoon, reporters repeatedly asked Chretien whether he thought his mission had failed because there were few concrete results.

"I take one step at a time," Chretien said, adding that the two leaders might have further talks in Geneva next month.

He said he likely would brief President Clinton in England next month during a Group of Seven summit. No other G7 member has sent a head of government to Cuba.

Earlier, Chretien suggested Washington might have a long wait if it hopes Castro, 71, will soon lose power.

"People told me maybe he wasn't in good health, but people who watch him find him in better shape than he was maybe a few months ago," he said.

Before leaving Tuesday, he toured Havana's colonial center and met Canadian businessmen involved in the two countries' growing commercial links. But he declined to meet with Cuba's leading human rights campaigner, Elizardo Sanchez. Other members of his delegation were sent to that meeting.

_ Information from Reuters and the Associated Press was used in this report.