Bush Unveils Measures to Pressure Cuba's Castro

Posted in Human Rights , United States , Latin America | 13-Oct-03 | Author: Caren Bohan | Source: Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush vowed on Friday to ratchet up pressure on Cuban leader Fidel Castro, saying Washington would toughen enforcement of a ban on travel to the island and pave the way for more dissidents to flee.

"Clearly, the Castro regime will not change by its own choice," Bush told a gathering in the White House Rose Garden. "But Cuba must change."

Bush said a year and a half ago he would be willing to ease U.S. sanctions on the communist-run country if it took steps toward democracy such as offering "free and fair elections" and adopting free-market economic changes.

"The dictator has responded with defiance and contempt and a new round of brutal oppression that outraged the world's conscience," Bush said, referring to a crackdown in Cuba last spring that resulted in the imprisonment of some 75 dissidents.

In Havana, Cuban Foreign Ministry officials declined to comment on Bush's announcement.

Castro's government slammed Bush on Monday for becoming more aggressive toward Cuba to please anti-Castro exiles in Florida for electoral purposes.

Florida is home to many Cuban-Americans who advocate tougher measures against the Castro government. Support from anti-Castro Cuban-Americans helped Bush win a disputed but pivotal victory in Florida in 2000 and the state could again prove key in the 2004 election.

TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS 'MUST BE ENFORCED'

Tens of thousands of Americans who visit Cuba each year defying the U.S. travel restrictions are received with open arms on the communist-run island.

But Bush said money paid by American tourists who stay in hotels in Cuba went to the government, with local workers paid only "a pittance."

"U.S. law forbids Americans to travel to Cuba for pleasure," Bush said. "That law is on the books and it must be enforced."

Bush said his administration would be increasing the number of Cuban immigrants allowed into the country and would help inform Cubans of safe routes by which they could enter.

During the Clinton administration, following an exodus of more than 35,000 Cuban rafters in the summer of 1994, the United States began sending back Cuban migrants caught at sea but allowed those who made it to land to stay -- a so-called wet foot/dry foot policy.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said there would be no change to that policy, put in place to discourage Cubans from making dangerous journeys using such means as homemade rafts.

"Our goal is to see that no Cuban believes it's necessary to risk his or her life when it comes to trying to reach the United States," McClellan said. "So we're working to increase the number of migrants admitted from Cuba through a safe, legal and orderly process."

A separate initiative would aim to increase the access of Cubans to communications equipment by distributing shortwave radios and printed materials.

Some business groups, Democratic lawmakers and free-trade Republicans favor loosening sanctions such as the travel ban, saying engaging the Caribbean country would be a more effective way to encourage moves toward democracy.

Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake (news, bio, voting record) said the United States had been "beating our head against a wall" with its Cuba policies emphasizing sanctions.

"By tightening enforcement of the travel ban, we will essentially just be beating it harder," Flake said in a statement after Bush's announcement.

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