updated 6/15/2006 7:54:10 AM ET 2006-06-15T11:54:10

The head of Cuba's parliament denied his country had imprisoned more than two dozen journalists because they spoke out against his government in a rare interview that was broadcast Wednesday at a Hispanic media convention.

"Those reports are fairly exaggerated," said Speaker Ricardo Alarcon, saying those who were imprisoned were not independent journalists but were agents of the United States.

He also blamed the U.S. embargo for the lack of Internet access in his communist country and denied reports that President Fidel Castro, 80, suffered from a disease such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.

"I would say that Fidel Castro is very, very strong and healthy. More than you would imagine," Alarcon said. "He doesn't have any of those diseases that are from time to time attributed to him."

About 2,000 people listened to him by satellite broadcast at the 24th annual National Association of Hispanic Journalist Convention.

Alarcon waved a photocopy of what he said were declassified U.S. Department of State documents showing the CIA had paid journalists to promote anti-Cuban government propaganda for nearly five decades.

Outside the convention, more than a dozen women dressed in black protested Alarcon's interview with Colombia University journalism professor and New York Times contributor Mirta Ojito, herself a Cuban exile.

Blanca Rosales, 57, held a poster of 24 journalists imprisoned in Cuba, including her son, Normando Hernandez. He has served three years of a 25-year sentence for writing articles critical of the Cuban government, she said.

"I want to know why (Alarcon) was given an opportunity to speak instead of independent journalists who can give the point of view of those who are suffering," she said. "What crime have they committed except to speak the truth, except to practice their profession as journalists?"

Criticism in Florida
The choice of interviewing Alarcon, a former United Nations ambassador who has been by Castro's side for more than 40 years, received criticism in South Florida, home to the largest community of Cuban exiles in the U.S.

Ojito, who was a teenager when she was part of the 1980 Mariel boatlift that brought thousands of Cubans to the United States, quickly dispensed with the small-talk with Alarcon during the convention's keynote event.

Alarcon took issue with Ojito's statement that more Cubans than ever were fleeing the island for the U.S., including many of Cuba's most talented natives.

Talented people also move from Mexico, he said, adding that many others would like to come to the U.S. but are unable to get visas.

"The U.S. doesn't offer the same policy to millions of Latin Americans who would like to do the same," he said.

While the speaker defended the Cuban government he was less sure of what would happen if the U.S. lifted its 46-year embargo.

"I cannot imagine how the situation would be," he said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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