Last Updated: Monday, December 11, 2006 | 12:38 PM ET
A crowd of government supporters swarmed a small group of dissidents in the Cuban capital Havana on Sunday, an incident a Canadian expert on Cuba suggests is part of a message being sent to Washington.
The demonstrators were on a silent march in a Havana park to mark International Human Rights Day when they were roughed up.
It was one of the first public confrontations since President Fidel Castro disappeared from public life because of illness in July.
Hal Klepak, a historian at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont., says the incident shows that the Cuban military is trying to send a message to the U.S. that, although its uniformed ranks are depleted, Cubans are prepared to fight to defend the island nation.
In Cuba for research, Klepak said Cuba is on high alert for internal disturbances out of fear they could be fuelled by the U.S. in an effort to topple the Castro government.
Loyalists accused Sunday's demonstrators of being mercenaries for the U.S. government.
Klepak says during the last four months, with Castro sick and out of the public eye, the U.S. has been trying everything short of armed invasion to find chinks in Cuba's self-defence plan.
"It is essential that the Cuban armed forces show that this will not be quick victory," Klepak said.
The Cubans realize they can't win an all-out war against the United States, he said, but "they will still be in a position to make the war long, bloody, costly and embarrassing.
"They believe and they are determined."
Cuba's armed forces recently paraded through the streets of Havana in a display of military force, but Klepak said the military is down to its bare bones.
When Cuba's economy nearly collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, it drastically cut its armed forces from 300,000 troops to about 55,000.
If it had to muster a real fighting force, Klepak said the Cuban military would need the "people's army," hundreds of thousands of trained civilians on the reserve list, to put up a real fight. Klepak estimated there are 700,000 trained reservists in Cuba.
With files from the Associated Press