- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

President Bush has approved a new $80 million program to boost U.S. efforts to bring democracy to Cuba, acting on the recommendations of a Cabinet-level panel that also called for tightening the embargo against the island nation.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who co-chaired the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba with Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, said the panel’s report reflects “American resolve to keep pace” with Cuba’s opposition and “to encourage those still silent out of fear but free in their hearts and minds to dream of a better future.”

The new program, “Compact with the People of Cuba,” adds to more than $70 million allocated for 2007 and 2008 to “build support for transition to a legitimate, democratic government,” the White House said.

“We are increasing our determination to break the [Castro] regime’s information blockade, and we are offering support for the efforts of Cubans to prepare for the day when they will recover their sovereignty and can select a government of their choosing through free and fair multiparty elections,” Miss Rice told reporters at the State Department.

Mr. Gutierrez said at the same briefing that once the Castro regime has been replaced, the United States would “help rebuild Cuba’s shattered economy” and “encourage assistance from other countries.”

Caleb McCarry, coordinator of the Cuba committee, said that at that time, Washington also would help maintain the country’s security, although he did not provide details. Part of the report is classified and will not be released.

Although the report did not propose new sanctions to hurry President Fidel Castro’s fall, it offered “recommendations for better enforcement of our current restrictions to ensure compliance,” Mr. McCarry said.

In Havana, dissidents said they appreciate Washington’s concerns about the Cuban people’s plight under Mr. Castro, who turns 80 next month, but expressed fear that the report could harm their movement.

“I have no doubt about the intentions of the report’s editors, but I believe it is another example of Washington’s views and initiatives on Cuba that have a rather counterproductive effect,” Elizardo Sanchez, a human rights activist on the island, was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse.

Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, given a 20-year jail sentence in 2003 but freed for health reasons, told AFP: “We are not in absolute accord with any foreign government’s views on what Cubans must do.

“I believe Cubans have to be the ones who solve our problems, and any interference serves to complicate the situation. We are thankful for the solidarity we have received from North America, Europe and elsewhere, but we request that they do not meddle in our country,” he said.

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