Bush refuses to lift U.S. embargo until Castro complies

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

WASHINGTON -- President Bush said Monday he won't heed calls to lift the Cuban trade embargo unless Fidel Castro releases political prisoners, conducts independently monitored elections and accepts a list of tough U.S. conditions for a "new government that is fully democratic."

"Freedom sometimes grows step by step, and we will encourage those steps," the president said, outlining his new U.S. policy on Cuban Independence Day.

Seeking to balance his hard-line policy with a sensitivity to Cuba's grinding poverty, the president outlined administration actions designed to make life better for the Cuban people. One initiative would resume direct mail service to and from Cuba.

Bush's speech, which aides said has been in the works since January, came a week after former President Carter traveled to Cuba and urged the people to embrace democracy while calling on the United States to lift the 40-year-old trade embargo.

Carter and other critics argue that the restrictions have failed to end Castro's regime while making life tough on ordinary Cubans. Critics also note the United States maintains trade and diplomatic relations with other nations that hold political prisoners and prevent free speech and elections, such as China, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

Bush also has been accused of shaping his policy to win support of Cuban-Americans, a force in Florida politics and thus a key to his re-election hopes. Indeed, Bush was traveling to Miami later in the day to address Cuban-Americans eager to hear his anti-Castro rhetoric.

The Cuban government did not respond immediately to the Washington speech. But some leading Cuban dissidents did not approve of Bush's hard-line stand.

"Changes have to be made but changes have to be made on both sides," said Vladimiro Roca, who was released from prison earlier this month. "The prickly relationship between the two countries ... can hurt our hopes for advancing a transition to democracy."

Speaking in Spanish at times, Bush said Cuba's legacy of freedom "has been insulted by a tyrant who uses brutal methods to enforce a bankrupt vision. That legacy has been debased by a relic from another era who has turned a beautiful island into a prison."

If all his conditions are met, Bush will support lifting the congressionally mandated trade ban -- even if Castro is still in charge -- said two senior White House officials, speaking on condition of anonymity. But they said Bush does not envision Castro's making the necessary changes, prompting the new policy designed to foment change from within the country.

To win his approval,Bush said Cuba must:

Allow opposition parties to speak freely and organize.

Allow independent trade unions.

Free all political prisoners.

Allow human rights organizations to visit Cuba to ensure that the conditions for free elections are being created.

Allow outside observers to monitor 2003 elections.

End discriminatory practices against Cuban workers.

Citing the spread of democracy throughout Latin America, Bush said: "With real political and economic reform, trade can benefit the Cuban people and allow them to share in the progress of our times."

He voiced support for a referendum in Cuba asking voters whether they favor civil liberties, including freedom of speech and assembly, and amnesty for political prisoners.

Bush called for the resumption of mail service and promised assistance to nongovernmental organizations that aid Cubans. He also pledged to create scholarships in the United States for Cuban students, family members of political prisoners and professionals trying to build civil institutions in the communist regime.

Money still needs to be found for the scholarship program, White House officials said. They said the initiatives can be carried out without congressional approval

Last week, a 40-member, bipartisan group in Congress announced support for easing the embargo. The private Human Rights Watch called for the same, saying the embargo "imposes indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people and impedes democratic change."

The public is evenly divided on ending the trade embargo, according to a recent CBS News poll that shows no change on that issue from four years ago. Sentiment for continuing the embargo has dropped from the mid-1990s. Republicans were more inclined to want to continue the embargo.

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