Friday, October 10, 2003

President Bush yesterday announced a new effort to weaken communist dictator Fidel Castro’s stranglehold on Cuba, vowing to step up enforcement of U.S. travel restrictions to the country and to increase the number of Cuban dissidents allowed into America.

In a Rose Garden event to commemorate the day Cuba celebrates the 1868 start of its quest for independence from Spain, the president said free nations have urged Mr. Castro to move toward democracy by holding “free and fair elections” for the good of his people, all to no avail.

“The dictator has responded with defiance and contempt and a new round of brutal oppression that outraged the world’s conscience,” Mr. Bush told about 50 Cuban Americans. “Clearly, the Castro regime will not change by its own choice. But Cuba must change.”

The president announced three initiatives “intended to assist the Cuban people in their struggle for freedom and to prepare the U.S. government for the emergence of a free and democratic Cuba,” the White House said in a statement.

The initiatives would:

• Curtail travel to Cuba by Americans by increased enforcement and inspections of travelers and shipments to and from the island.

• Increase the number of new migrants admitted from Cuba “through a safe, legal, and orderly process.”

• Create a new Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba to help prepare the U.S. government to provide effective assistance to a free Cuba.

The increased access to America comes after Havana cracked down on dissidents, imprisoning 75 Castro opponents in April, some for as long as 28 years.

Cuban exile groups, an influential voting bloc in Florida, have pushed Mr. Bush to take a more aggressive line on Cuba. They welcomed his moves to toughen policy on the communist-run island, with some saying their pressure had paid off.

“This is precisely what we have asked for, that the laws should be implemented,” said Ninoska Perez, leader of a hard-line exile group called the Cuban Liberty Council, which strongly opposes any easing of U.S. trade and travel restrictions on Cuba.

Cuban American National Foundation Chairman Jorge Mas Santos praised the creation of the presidential commission. “We have high expectations,” he said.

The new commission will be spearheaded by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, a Cuban. The commission will develop a plan “to establish democracy and the rule of law, create the core institutions of free enterprise, modernize infrastructure and provide health, housing, and human services when Castro is out of power,” the White House said.

“The transition to freedom will present many challenges to the Cuban people and to America, and we will be prepared,” the president said.

Mr. Bush said he had asked the Treasury Department to begin “strengthening enforcement of those travel restrictions to Cuba that are already in place.” Under U.S. law enacted in 1961 as part of a broad embargo against the communist regime, Americans are not allowed to spend money in Cuba unless they have special authorization from the Treasury Department.

The president said that exceptions to the law — which include allowing visits to family, to deliver humanitarian aid or to conduct research — “are too often used as a cover for illegal business travel and tourism, or to skirt the restrictions on carrying cash into Cuba.”

“We’re cracking down on this deception. … U.S. law forbids Americans to travel to Cuba for pleasure. That law is on the books and it must be enforced.”

Using the new Department of Homeland Security, the president said there would also be increased inspections of travelers and shipments to and from Cuba.

The president also announced that the United States will increase the number of Cuban immigrants it allows into the country, although the White House offered no firm numbers.

Under a 1994 agreement with Havana, which was prompted by an exodus of Cubans to South Florida, the United States began giving out about 20,000 visas in each fiscal year. Last year, however, the U.S. goal was not achieved.

“We are working to ensure that Cubans fleeing the dictatorship do not risk their lives at sea. My administration is improving the method through which we identify refugees, and redoubling our efforts to process Cubans who seek to leave,” Mr. Bush said.

“We will increase the number of new Cuban immigrants we welcome every year. We are free to do so, and we will, for the good of those who seek freedom. Our goal is to help more Cubans safely complete their journey to a free land.”

Mr. Bush also said his administration would make greater efforts to send broadcasts into Cuba.

“We continue to break the information embargo that the Cuban government has imposed on its people for a half a century,” he said. “Repressive governments fear the truth, and so we’re increasing the amount and expanding the distribution of printed material to Cuba, of Internet-based information inside of Cuba, and of AM-FM and shortwave radios for Cubans.

“We know that the enemy of every tyrant is the truth,” Mr. Bush said. “We’re determined to bring the truth to the people who suffer under Fidel Castro.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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