Bush calls for a 'new Cuba'

Other News Materials 26 October 2007 08:58

(Boston) -President Bush issued a stern warning yesterday that the United States will not accept a political transition in Cuba in which power merely shifts from one Castro brother to another rather than to the Cuban people.

But specialists on Cuba said the president's warning seemed oddly timed and his analysis outdated, part of a policy that is meant to isolate Cuba but that increasingly leaves the United States as the international odd man out.

Bush's remarks, delivered at the State Department, constituted an unbending response to the political changes that began in Cuba more than a year ago, when Fidel Castro, 81, underwent surgery and handed power to his brother, Raul, 76.

While administration officials said Bush's speech was aimed at the Cuban people, and would be heard by radio there, it appeared equally directed at the Cuban-Americans who form a powerful Republican voting bloc in Florida, and more broadly at US conservatives, for whom fervent opposition to Fidel Castro has long been an article of faith.

Bush's speech amounted to a call for Cubans to continue to resist. Addressing the military and police, he said they would have a place in a "new Cuba."

White House officials said that Bush was not calling for armed rebellion, but was merely reminding Cubans "that they have the power to shape their destiny."

Analysts said, however, that Raul Castro has established his hold on power and has taken moves to open the Cuban economy and at least listen to public concerns.

With the political transition underway in Havana, and other countries exploring new relations with the island, US policy looks anachronistic, they said.

"Our policy really is one of utter sterility," said Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a onetime chief of mission at the US Interests Section in Havana. "We warn the Cubans not to go for transition - but it has already happened, and short of some kind of massive military action, which we're in no position to take, there's nothing that we can do."

A senior administration official who previewed Bush's speech for reporters said that nothing in Raul Castro's past gave Washington reason to expect democratic changes soon. And he said the United States would uphold its tough economic policies against the island.

But Bush held out the possibility of incentives for change if Havana showed openness to them.

Those steps might include expanding cultural and information exchanges with Cuba and allowing religious organizations and other nonprofits to send computers to Cuba and to award scholarships.

The president reiterated the administration's longstanding demands for free and transparent elections and the release of political prisoners.

Philip Peters, a specialist on Cuba at the nonpartisan Lexington Institute, said Bush appeared to be trying to reorient a policy that has fallen behind the times.

American policy, he said, had been centered around the idea that the Communist government would fall once Fidel Castro left power. Instead, Raul Castro's rise caught the administration off guard.

"The administration realized they had missed the boat," Peters said. "Succession has already happened."

Smith said that most Americans, and increasingly even Cuban-Americans, favor normalization with Havana.