- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

U.S. policy toward Cuba's "murderous" regime will get even tougher, unless it begins to respect human rights and moves toward democracy, the Bush administration's senior official on Latin America said yesterday.

"One way we can help is not throwing a lifeline to a failed, corrupt, dictatorial, murderous regime. … We are not going to help Fidel Castro stay in power by opening up our markets to Cuba," said Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for Latin America, in his first policy speech since being sworn in Monday.

Mr. Reich, a hard-line anti-Castro Cuban-American whose family escaped Nazi fascism and communist Cuba, said yesterday that he would support easing the embargo if there were any movement at all in Cuba toward democratic elections, freedom of the press or respect for human rights. Barring that, he said the Bush administration would adamantly oppose moves afoot on Capitol Hill to undermine the 40-year-old economic embargo.

He said the embargo has been the only element of Washington's Cuba policy since the mid-1960s but the Bush administration wants to expand its efforts to include helping dissidents on the island.

"The Cuban people are no different than anyone else in Latin America," he said. "They just want to be free."

Speaking at a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Mr. Reich said supporting democratic freedom and economic prosperity in Latin America are major priorities for the administration.

A former ambassador to Venezuela, Mr. Reich joined the administration in a recess appointment by President Bush in January when the Democratic-controlled Senate refused to give him a hearing.

Mr. Reich yesterday joked about his controversial appointment, greeting the audience as "friends, former colleagues and unindicted co-conspirators" in a reference to his critics' charge that as a member of the Reagan administration he planted stories in major newspapers that supported the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua. He was never charged with any wrongdoing.

Mr. Reich said Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell would travel to Mexico, El Salvador and Peru next week to emphasize U.S. support for democracy and market reforms in the region.

Mr. Bush is scheduled to participate in a United Nations development-financing conference in Mexico. In Peru and El Salvador he will discuss trade, development, democracy and regional security issues. And he is meeting with the presidents of Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador on trade issues.

Mr. Reich said that the Bush administration would be more comfortable with Venezuela if populist President Hugo Chavez made more time for democratic countries in his travel schedule rather than "Baghdad, Tripoli and Havana."


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