- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

President Bush turned up the heat on the Cuban regime yesterday, saying Washington would “take note” of any leaders who tried to block a push for freedom by the Cuban people.

“I urge the Cuban people to work for democratic change on the island. We will support you in your effort to build a transitional government in Cuba committed to democracy, and we will take note of those, in the current Cuban regime, who obstruct your desire for a free Cuba,” Mr. Bush said in his first comments since Cuban leader Fidel Castro turned power over to his brother, Raul Castro, on Monday.

“It has long been the hope of the United States to have a free, independent and democratic Cuba as a close friend and neighbor. In achieving this, the Cuban people can count on the full and unconditional support of the United States,” the president said in a statement released as the president was flying aboard Air Force One to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and timed to take advantage of continued uncertainty about Fidel Castro’s condition.

In the three days since longtime leader the elder Mr. Castro turned authority over to his brother and underwent surgery, Cuban authorities have mobilized local security forces to patrol neighborhoods and coastal towns, residents said.

Cuba watchers yesterday exhorted the United States to take advantage of the political transition in Cuba before Raul Castro, minister of the armed forces and now acting president, has a chance to reassert the communist apparatus of power on the people.

Mr. Bush said the United States is “actively monitoring” the situation and that if Cuba is, in fact, going through a transition in government, he will offer humanitarian assistance to Cubans.

Just last month Mr. Bush signed off on a new report by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba that calls for taking steps to help Cubans be ready for a regime change. The panel said the U.S. would prepare to help a transition government, and also called for better enforcement of travel and financial sanctions to wound the existing regime.

An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said since Mr. Bush signed off on the report on July 10 the administration has been holding meetings to figure out how to proceed on the recommendations. The official also said the administration has been in touch with members of Congress to talk about making the U.S. migration policy family-friendly at the U.S. mission in Havana, but said they are not considering relaxing the interdiction-at-sea policy.

But legal analysts fear that U.S. sanctions are so restrictive and multilayered that the administration would have a hard time moving quickly enough to meet any inklings of change on the island nation.

In Fidel Castro’s historic statement provisionally handing power over to his younger brother, the ailing dictator underscored the role of the Communist Party and named a number of political hard-liners to ensure the survival of his revolutionary ideals.

“There is no doubt that our people and our Revolution will fight to the last drop of blood to defend these and other ideas and measures that are necessary to safeguard this historic process,” Mr. Castro wrote in a statement read out on national television Monday.

Neither Mr. Castro, 79, nor his 75-year-old brother have made a public appearance since the Cuban president underwent intestinal surgery. Ricardo Alarcon, the leader of Cuba’s national legislature, has said the president was “alert” and well.

Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere affairs from 2003 to 2005, said that the transition offered Washington a rare chance to encourage the Cuban people to rise up and change the regime.

“It has to be morally unacceptable for us in the year 2006 to let this opportunity pass and to let a Raul regime dig in like a parasitic tick — we just have to be audacious,” said Mr. Noriega, who now works with the American Enterprise Institute and with the Miami-based law firm Tew Cardenas.

He said Washington should be sending messages of support through the exile community to ordinary Cubans to “seize the opportunity,” and to the regime that “if you use deadly force, you are going to be held accountable.”

Although Raul Castro is largely credited with cracking open the Cuban economy to private entrepreneurs in the 1990s, there are conflicting thoughts on how he would lead the country.

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, said that even if Raul Castro were to throw open the doors, the United States would be in no position to respond.

“The problem is our hands our tied until we repeal Helms-Burton,” referring to a law that sets strict requirements for lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

The law requires that any transitional government not include Fidel or Raul Castro, that all political activity has to be legalized and all political prisoners released.

“If Raul were to come tomorrow and say we are going to liberalize the economy and parties, we could not respond in kind,” said Mr. Flake, who plans to introduce legislation next month to ease the restrictions.

Lawyer Matias Travieso-Diaz, a Cuban-American in the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman who has worked Cuban issues for more than 15 years, agreed.

“We have over the years, in an effort to restrict trade with Cuba, put a number of layers of difficulties that would have to be removed. It could be done, but I am not aware of circumstances in which laws passed being changed that quickly,” said Mr. Travieso-Diaz.

Sharon Behn reported from Washington and Stephen Dinan reported from Texas while traveling with President Bush.

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