Eager to please a key Florida constituency, President Bush vowed Friday to try to weaken Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s power, and said the United States would beef up its travel restrictions to the country and make it easier for dissidents to flee.
InsertArt(2037915)“CLEARLY, THE CASTRO regime will not change by its own choice,” Bush told a gathering at the White House Rose Garden. “But Cuba must change.”
The president said that too many Americans were bypassing the restriction against travel to Cuba. They are using humanitarian relief work as a cover to go on holiday or “carry cash into Cuba,” he said.
“The Department of Homeland Security will enforce the law,” he said, adding that Americans also will be prevented from traveling through third countries or by private vessel.
The administration had been signaling for weeks that new steps concerning Cuba were being planned. A small group of advisers, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, were asked to provide advice on hastening what the administration calls the “inevitable democratic transition in Cuba.”
Some of Cuban President Fidel Castro’s most ardent opponents have criticized the Bush administration for not doing more to bring about democratic change in Cuba.
Florida, a vote-rich swing state, is one of the states Bush has visited most since becoming president. The votes of Miami’s Cuban-American community could be crucial in the 2004 presidential election.
Bush’s relations with his backers in Miami hit a low point in July when Washington returned 15 migrants to Cuba after receiving assurances they would not be executed for hijacking a government-owned boat that was intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard.
The president’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, took issue with the decision, saying it wasn’t right to send the Cubans back to Castro’s regime.
POWELL SEEKS INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT
Powell has been trying to enlist other nations in efforts to bring democracy to a country that has not had a free election since Castro assumed power in 1959.
In a June speech in Chile to Organization of American States foreign ministers, Powell asked his colleagues to join the United States in promoting a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba.
InsertArt(2037914)Castro has scoffed at the notion that Cuba needs a transition, contending that the island had one 44 years ago.
The head of Cuba’s diplomatic mission here, Dagoberto Rodriguez, said Thursday that Bush should “stop acting like a lawless cowboy” and “start listening to the voices of the nations of the world.”
Speaking at a news conference, Rodriguez noted that each fall, for 12 years, the U.N. General Assembly has urged the United States to lift its trade embargo against Cuba. He said the General Assembly is expected to approve a similar measure next month.
Bush has said he will veto any measure approved by the Congress that calls for an easing of the embargo, which has been in effect for more than four decades.
Rodriguez also demanded that the administration “stop lying” about Cuba “just to please a small minority of extremists,” a reference to the Cuban-American community in South Florida.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.