- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

MIAMI President Bush yesterday called Cuba's Fidel Castro a coward for denying his people the freedom to choose their leaders and vowed to veto any congressional legislation that seeks to lift the 42-year-old economic embargo against the Western Hemisphere's last dictatorship.

In a passage reminiscent of President Reagan's 1987 call to Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," Mr. Bush spoke directly to the Marxist dictator who has ruled Cuba since 1959.

"For 43 years, every election in Cuba has been a fraud and a sham. Mr. Castro, once just once show that you're unafraid of a real election. Show the world you respect Cuba's citizens enough to listen to their voices and count their votes," the president said, drawing a standing ovation from Cuban Americans packed into a convention center.

The president made clear he will not heed recent calls to lift the trade and travel bans and will fight any effort to do so.

"We will continue to enforce economic sanctions and ban the travel to Cuba until Cuba's government shows real reform. And I also want you to know I will not allow our taxpayers' money to go to enrich the Castro regime, and I'm willing to use my veto," he said to another standing ovation.

Commemorating the day 100 years ago when Cuba became a republic after the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War, Mr. Bush lamented the state of the island country of about 11 million.

"Nearly a half-century ago, Cuba's independence and the hopes for democracy were hijacked by a brutal dictator who cares everything for his own power and nada for the Cuban people," he said.

"In an era where every other nation in our hemisphere has chosen the path to democracy every nation in our hemisphere has chosen the path to democracy this leader instead chooses to jail, to torture and exile Cuban people for speaking their minds."

Mr. Bush called on Mr. Castro to hold independently monitored elections, free all political dissidents and unshackle workers as prerequisites to lifting the trade embargo.

"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," he said.

But even if Mr. Castro does not move toward democracy, Mr. Bush pledged to ease restrictions on humanitarian assistance from U.S. religious and nongovernmental organizations, to offer scholarships for Cuban students and the children of political prisoners and to help expand radio and television stations in Havana that promote democracy.

"Under this new initiative for a new Cuba, the United States recognizes that freedom sometimes grows step by step, and we will encourage those steps," he said.

Still, Mr. Bush made clear the embargo must stay in place, despite criticism from congressional Democrats and former President Jimmy Carter, who argue that the trade ban has been ineffective and should be lifted.

"Without meaningful reform, trade with Cuba would do nothing more than line the pockets of Fidel Castro and his cronies," Mr. Bush said, drawing a standing ovation and chants of "Cuba Libre," or "Free Cuba."

Speaking partly in Spanish to the Cuban-American crowd, Mr. Bush drew the loudest ovation when he said: "Mr. Castro must now act. He has his chance. He's been given an opportunity. We will continue to enforce economic sanctions and ban the travel to Cuba until Cuba's government shows real reform."

The firm line against lifting the embargo, coupled with new efforts to aid Cubans, drew praise from Republican lawmakers and Cuban groups.

"President Bush today has reiterated his unwavering support for the Cuban people and their struggle for freedom, aligning U.S. foreign policy more closely than ever before with the efforts of Cuba's democracy activists," said Cuban American National Foundation Chairman Jorge Mas Santos.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, said Mr. Bush "made a compelling argument that Cuba's lack of economic and political freedom gives the U.S. no incentive to lift trade sanctions because only the Castro regime will benefit from doing so."

Said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republican: "The president was exactly right to reiterate the fundamental bright line threshold that Castro must cross to allow expanded relations between the United States and the people of Cuba. President Bush has again proven himself a champion of freedom."

But some Democrats supported the call by Mr. Carter, who last week concluded a five-day visit to the island, to lift the embargo without conditions.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps and narcotics affairs, said the White House responded to Mr. Carter's visit "in very petty ways."

"The specific package of proposals announced by the administration is much ado about nothing," said Mr. Dodd, who plans to hold hearings early next month on a bill that would lift the embargo and remove travel restrictions with Cuba.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, who for many years supported the U.S. embargo of Cuba, said Mr. Bush "offered nothing new to change a failed policy."

"What George Bush is fighting for, frankly, is the forces of regression," she said.

Cuban Americans in Florida, which became the decisive state in the 2000 presidential election, went heavily for the Texas governor. Among Cuban-American voters in Miami-Dade, Mr. Bush took 82 percent of the vote to 12 percent for Vice President Al Gore.

Exit polls showed that Cuban-Americans held a lingering resentment about the case of Elian Gonzalez, who escaped Cuba with his mother but was returned to the island by the Clinton Justice Department, which seized the 6-year-old boy at gunpoint.

Shortly after the election, Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University, said: "If we didn't have the Elian Gonzalez situation, Al Gore would be president-elect today."

The Republican Party is targeting the growing Hispanic bloc, but with the exception of Cuban Americans, voters in most Hispanic-origin populations voted for Mr. Gore by a large margin: Mexicans (69 percent), Puerto Ricans (71 percent), Central Americans (74 percent) and South Americans (69 percent).

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