- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2002

President Bush today will demand that Cuba release all political prisoners and hold free elections before his administration will consider lifting the 42-year-old economic embargo against the Communist regime.
In a speech in Miami, where Cuban immigrants make up a significant voting block, the president will push Cubans to replace Fidel Castro, the Marxist dictator who aligned with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
"Full normalization of relations with Cuba diplomatic recognition, open trade and a robust aid program will only be possible when Cuba has a new government that is fully democratic, when the rule of law is respected and when the human rights of all Cubans are fully protected," the president will say, according to excerpts released last night by the White House.
"All political prisoners should be released and allowed to participate in the election process. Human rights organizations should be free to visit Cuba to ensure that the conditions for free elections are being created.
"And the 2003 elections should be monitored by objective, outside observers. These are the minimum steps necessary to make sure that next year's elections are a true expression of the will of the Cuban people."
The coming elections give Cuba "the opportunity to offer Cuban voters the substance of democracy, not just its hollow, empty forms. Opposition parties should have the freedom to organize, assemble and speak, with equal access to the airwaves."
Mr. Bush will declare that lifting the embargo without reform in Cuba would be pointless, saying: "Without major steps by Cuba to open up its political system and its economic system, trade with Cuba will not help the Cuban people, it will merely enrich Castro and his cronies and prop up their dictatorship."
He also was to express his support for a referendum in Cuba asking voters whether they favor civil liberties like freedom of speech and assembly, and amnesty for political prisoners, said Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, who was briefed on Mr. Bush's message.
But the president will offer aid and pledge to work with Congress to ease the ban on trade and travel between the United States and Cuba if the island nation takes these steps.
In his speech, Mr. Bush will outline his "Initiative for a New Cuba," which the White House said is intended to "make life better for people living under Castro's rule." The proposal would:
Cut through U.S. bureaucratic red tape that hampers American aid groups from working in Cuba.
Send U.S. taxpayer money to those nongovernmental groups that want to help in Cuba.
Establish scholarships in the United States for Cuban students and professionals trying to assemble independent institutions and for relatives of political prisoners.
Resume mail service, which the United States has sought unsuccessfully since 1999, between the United States and Cuba.
"The United States has long maintained that the Cuban government must move to a democratic system that fully respects the human rights of its people. This will remain the administration's policy," the White House said.
The president will deliver his message on Cuban Independence Day commemorating the date in 1902 when Cuba became a republic after the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War. In a morning speech at the White House and a later speech in Miami, Mr. Bush will seek to mute pleas from former President Jimmy Carter and some members of Congress that the United States lift the trade embargo against Cuba.
Mr. Carter spent five days in Cuba and delivered a live televised speech to Cubans. But the former president at one point took issue with the Bush administration over claims Cuba is working on biological weapons. He also believes the United States should do away with the trade embargo.
Mr. Bush's spokesman Ari Fleischer took issue last week with Mr. Carter's call for open trade between the United States and Cuba.
"The president believes that the trade embargo is a vital part of American foreign policy and human rights policy toward Cuba. Trade with Cuba does not benefit the people of Cuba. It is used to prop up a repressive regime," Mr. Fleischer said.
But the White House welcomed the former president's call for the Cuban referendum on political reforms.
"He did talk about human rights in Cuba. He said some things that Cuban people have not heard before about their rights, about their freedom in Cuba, and that's helpful and positive," Mr. Fleischer said.
On Tuesday, Mr. Bush said that his policy toward Cuba has been consistent throughout his term, and that Mr. Carter's visit will have no effect.
"It doesn't complicate my foreign policy because I haven't changed my foreign policy, that is, Fidel Castro is a dictator, and he is oppressive, and he ought to have free elections, and he ought to have a free press, and he ought to free his prisoners, and he ought to encourage free enterprise.
"My message to the Cuban people is: 'Demand freedom and you've got a president who stands with you,'" Mr. Bush said.
Last week, a group of 40 lawmakers Republicans and Democrats also announced support for easing the embargo, and on Friday, Human Rights Watch called for the same, saying the embargo "imposes indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people and impedes democratic change."
Politics loomed large over Mr. Bush's speech and trip: Cuban-American voters helped carry him to a narrow victory in Florida, the state that decided the 2000 election.
Mr. Bush's brother Jeb Bush, the Florida governor, faces re-election this year and also is depending on Cuban Americans, who vote heavily Republican.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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