IMAGE: President George W. Bush
Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP
President Bush is to make his first standalone address on Cuba in four years, today, at the State Department.
updated 11/8/2007 10:53:58 AM ET 2007-11-08T15:53:58

President Bush on Wednesday blistered Cuba's regime and challenged the international community to help the people of the communist island shed Fidel Castro's rule and become a free society.

"Now is the time to support the democratic movement growing on the island," Bush said in an address at the State Department.

"Now is the time to stand with the Cuban people as they stand up for their liberty. And now is the time for the world to put aside its differences and prepare for Cubans' transition to a future of freedom and progress and promise."

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

It is Bush's vision for Cuban regime change: providing help on the outside, prodding change on the inside.

Seizing on Castro's fading health as a rare opening, Bush was to ask other nations Wednesday to help Cuba become a free society.

In remarks delivered at the State Department - his first standalone address on Cuba in four years - Bush looked to the day when Castro is gone. Bush described a nation in which Cuban people choose a representative government and enjoy basic freedoms, with support from a broad international coalition.

For now, though, Castro is still the island's unchallenged leader, as he has been for almost 50 years. And he remains a nemesis to Bush, whom he accuses of being obsessed with Cuba and of threatening humanity with nuclear war. At the age of 81, Castro is ailing and rarely seen in public. But life has changed little on the island under the authority of his brother, 76-year-old Raul Castro, who has been his elder brother's hand-picked successor for decades.

Bush touted peaceful, pro-democracy movements in Cuba and called on other countries to get behind them. In a direct appeal to ordinary citizens in Cuba, he told them they have the power to change their country, but the White House says that is not meant to be a call for armed rebellion.

Video: Castro appears in first official video in 3 months

Bush proposed  three initiatives: the creation of an international "freedom fund" to help Cuba's potential rebuilding of its country one day; a U.S. licensing of private groups to provide Internet access to Cuban students, and an invitation to Cuban youth to join a scholarship program.

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The latter two offerings help the Bush administration underscore the kind of real-life limitations that Cubans now face, from blocked Internet access to restricted information about their leaders to denial of legal protections. The creation of the international fund is meant to speed up societal transformation.

"We all know that Cuba is going to face very significant requirements to rebuild itself," said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid pre-empting the president. "There's a whole set of challenges that Cuba is going to face. The United States will clearly want to help the Cubans as they define what it is they need, but we think the international community should be thinking that way as well."

Washington's decades-old economic embargo on Cuba prohibits U.S. tourists from visiting the island and chokes off nearly all trade between both countries. Bush will ask Congress to maintain the embargo, which has come under scrutiny and calls for reassessment from some lawmakers.

Cuba staged municipal elections on Sunday, the first step in a process that will determine whether Fidel Castro is re-elected or replaced next year. The Communist Party is the only one allowed, and while candidates do not have to be members, critics claim they are the only ones who ever win.

Bush, increasingly, is speaking of a Castro-free Cuba. As he put it earlier this month: "In Havana, the long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing an end."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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