Fidel Castro approves Maradona's plans to participate in anti-American protests

Cuban leader Fidel Castro, in a taped television interview with Diego Maradona, told Argentine viewers that he welcomed the Argentine soccer legend's plans to take part in anti-American protests at the upcoming Summit of the Americas. Maradona is scheduled to ride Thursday in a celebrity protest train taking opponents of U.S. President George W. Bush from Buenos Aires to the Argentine resort of Mar del Plata for the summit.

Thousands of other protesters started massing Monday in Mar del Plata for a "People's Summit" to air their grievances on issues from free trade to the war in Iraq.

Bush arrives Thursday, and the summit for him and 33 other Latin American and Caribbean leaders takes place Friday and Saturday.

Asked about the fourth Summit of the Americas, Castro told Maradona in the interview broadcast Monday night that the United States has a "very pestilent name" and urged Argentines to support planned protests of the summit.

"We have struggled for various years" against the United States, said Castro.

"I'm happy that you are going to be there" in the protests, he told Maradona, who traveled last week to Cuba to conduct the two-part interview for broadcast on his popular weekly talk show, the AP says.

While the heads of state meet at a Mar del Plata luxury hotel at the center of the security corridor, various groups are planning protests in the city at the third "Summit of the People of the Americas" to be held Tuesday through Saturday. Bush opponents vowed to gather thousands of demonstrators for a peaceful march Friday.

Heavy security precautions were being taken at the summer resort 230 miles (370 kilometers) south of Buenos Aires, with some 10,000 police and security forces already deployed in Mar del Plata.

Argentine officials said they will have enough police on hand to counter any violent protests like those at past summits.

Leaders are expected to hold talks on free trade, job creation and other issues including bolstering democracy throughout the hemisphere.

In the interview with Maradona, Castro predicted that U.S. efforts to lower trade barriers across the Americas, an ambitious proposal called the Free Trade Area of the Americas, would ultimately fail.

Castro is the only Latin American leader who will not attend. He is not permitted to participate because Cuba is not a member of the Organization of American States, which organizes the summit.