WaPo : Bush Challenges Nations to Help Bring Democracy to Cuba

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bush Challenges Nations to Help Bring Democracy to Cuba

By Michael Abramowitz | Washington Post Staff Writer | October 24, 2007

President Bush insisted this afternoon that the confrontational U.S. approach to Cuba will endure until there is a change in its communist government and challenged the rest of the world to support efforts to bring democracy to the island nation.

"Now is the time to stand with the Cuban people as they stand up for their liberty," Bush said in remarks at the State Department. "And now is the time for the world to put aside its differences and prepare for Cuba's transition to a future of freedom and progress and promise.

"The dissidents of today will be the nation's leaders tomorrow -- and when freedom finally comes, they will surely remember who stood with them."

The speech provided the president's most detailed remarks on Cuba policy in four years and came as the country is undergoing its first transfer of power in half a century. An ailing Fidel Castro turned over power to his brother Raul more than a year ago and has not been seen in public since, though he has appeared in videotapes with visitors.

The administration had been hoping that Fidel Castro's demise might usher in a move to relax the Communist Party's control and speed the arrival of democracy. But there have been no signs of that since Raul Castro assumed power, and Bush's speech today made clear that there will be no fundamental change in U.S. policy, such as lifting trade and travel restrictions, until Cuba's rulers provide political freedoms.

Bush said the United States was willing to provide computers and Internet access -- as well as scholarships for Cuban youth -- but only if Havana relaxes restrictions on such activities. He also announced efforts to create an international "freedom fund" for Cuba that would finance reconstruction once the government offers free speech, free elections and other liberties.

"We make these offers to the people of Cuba -- and we hope their rulers will allow them to accept," Bush said. "We've made similar offers before -- but they've been rejected out of hand by the regime. It's a sad lesson, and it should be a vivid lesson for all: For Cuba's ruling class, its grip on power is more important than the welfare of its people."

Bush also called on the Cuban military, police and government officials to refuse to crack down on the nation's citizens if they take up his call for democracy.

"You may have once believed in the revolution. Now you can see its failure," Bush said. "When Cubans rise up to demand their liberty . . . the liberty they deserve, you've got to make a choice. Will you defend a disgraced and dying order by using force against your own people? Or will you embrace your people's desire for change?"

Bush's tough language was warmly received in the handpicked audience in the ornate Benjamin Franklin Room, which appeared filled by Cuban American leaders and politicians sympathetic to Bush's view. Six family members of Cuban political prisoners were on hand, and several teared up as the president recognized their relatives.

The president noted that Cuba's rulers "promised absolute respect for human rights. Instead, they offered Cubans rat-infested prisons and a police state."

Bush's speech drew a mixed response from leading U.S. politicians, with some embracing the continuation of strict sanctions and a strategy of isolation and others saying that policy has run its course.

"Once again President Bush keeps the United States on the sidelines as the transition to a free Cuba is already underway," said a statement from Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a presidential candidate. "We have an opportunity to help and support the peaceful transition to democracy by restoring American citizens' right to travel to Cuba and be the citizen diplomats who can help pave the way to freedom and democracy in Cuba. Instead the President continues to allow his fixation with the Castro brothers to stand in the way of a sensible policy with respect to Cuba."

But GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney said Bush was on the right track. "To keep faith with the Cuban people, we must make clear that there will be no deals with the illegitimate Castro regime which clings to power in Cuba," he said in a statement. "We must continue to hold back normal economic ties and political recognition until all political prisoners are free to join their fellow Cubans in building a genuine democracy through free and fair elections."