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Castro praises House travel vote

In his annual speech marking the start of the Cuban Revolution, President Fidel Castro thanked U.S. lawmakers Friday for approving measures that would ease sanctions against the communist-ruled island.

Speaking before tens of thousands of people gathered at a rally in a central provincial capital, Castro said this week's vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to lift restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba took "determination and courage."

"We shall always be grateful for that gesture," Castro told the crowd participating in the annual Revolution Day commemoration.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Congress voted overwhelming to prohibit funds from being used to enforce the four-decade-old travel ban, effectively eliminating it. The House also voted to ease the burden against the sale of medicine and food to the island and eliminate the cap on the amount of money Americans can send to individuals there.

Eliminating the cap, which limits remittances to $1,200 per person annually, is considered largely symbolic, because only a fraction of the estimated $600-million sent by Cuban-Americans to relatives is reported to the U.S. government.

The three measures are now before the U.S. Senate. But President Bush has vowed to veto any moves to ease the sanction until Castro, who has been in power since a 1959 revolution, agrees to democratic reforms in the one-party state.

Castro also took the opportunity to condemn recent Wall Street scandals as "bald-faced robbery" and said they only confirm what he has been saying about capitalism for more than 40 years.

Castro told the crowd that plunging U.S. stock markets and a return to government deficits in Washington have spread "terrifying" problems to Latin America that appear to be getting worse.

"Today quite a number of us on this Earth are waiting to see how the developed capitalist world, led by the United States, disengages from the colossal and chaotic economic mess in which it is enmeshed," he said.

Castro's speech marks the anniversary of the July 26, 1953, attack by Castro and his followers on an army barracks that kick-started the revolution.

The Cuban government is hoping to ease its own economic hardship in part by purchasing more farm products from the United States. Current U.S. law allows Cuba to buy health and agricultural products from the United States, although purchases have been limited by a ban on financing.

The House measure passed this week prohibits funds from being used by the U.S. government to enforce the ban on financing, effectively eliminating it.

"Midwestern farmers ought to be able to sell their products, just as Americans everywhere should not have their travel restricted," said Steve Schwadron, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., who backed the amendments. "There is no better ambassador for democracy than ordinary Americans."

But Joe Garcia, executive director of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, said easing the sanctions would only provide "an economic bailout to a deadbeat dictator."

Since the first sales in December 2001, Cuba has bought 660,000 metric tons of apples, corn, poultry and other products from U.S. companies worth about $107-million.

_ Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.