US rules out quick Cuba policy change

( dpa )- The Bush administration is ruling out any changes in its Cuba policy - including lifting a five-decade trade embargo - deriding Fidel Castro's brother and heir apparent, Raul, as "dictator lite."

Despite having openly wished for Castro's demise and the end of his rule for years, U.S. officials said Tuesday that Castro's decision to step down on his own terms leaves little hope for real democratic transition in communist Cuba during Bush's final year in office, although it may open options for his successor in the White House.

Led by President Bush, a chorus of officials expressed hope that Castro's departure would spark fundamental changes for the Cuban people. But they also said they doubted that would happen under Raul Castro and said there was little chance the nearly 50-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba would be lifted.

"They're the ones who suffered under Fidel Castro," Bush told a news conference in Rwanda. "They're the ones who were put in prison because of their beliefs. They're the ones who have been denied their right to live in a free society. So I view this as a period of transition and it should be the beginning of the democratic transition in Cuba."

"Eventually, this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections - and I mean free, and I mean fair - not these kind of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist off as true democracy," Bush said. "The United States will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty."

Even as U.S. lawmakers suggested Castro's retirement should set off a review of U.S. policy, senior State Department officials in Washington said there would be no lifting of the embargo, which has been the centerpiece of American policy toward Cuba since it was first imposed in 1960 and strengthened in 1962.

"I can't imagine that happening any time soon," said Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.

The ailing Castro, 81, who has called the embargo "criminal" and claims its impact has run into the tens of billions of dollars, announced earlier Tuesday he would not accept another term in office when parliament meets to elect a new president this weekend.

Castro outlasted nine U.S. presidents who, with some minor policy adjustments, have steadily ramped up pressure on Cuba. At least two Secretaries of State, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell, said publicly while in office that they hoped "the actuarial tables" would catch up with the aging Cuban leader who was a persistent thorn in Washington's side.

Long-standing U.S. irritation with Castro was evident on Tuesday with officials stressing they were not optimistic for any kind of quick change under Raul Castro, to whom Fidel ceded power temporarily in July 2006.

"The changing of the guard is not significant of and by itself," deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters, repeatedly referring to Raul Castro as "dictator lite" or "Fidel lite."

"It will be significant if in fact it leads to greater openness and freedom for the Cuban people and ultimately to a democratic transition," he said. But he cautioned that "the general analysis is that Raul Castro is 'Fidel lite.' He is simply a continuation of the Castro regime, of the dictatorship."

Jumping into the fray, the top three U.S. presidential candidates all said Washington should look for ways to encourage democratic reforms in Cuba, steps that could lead to normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba later on.

Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and Republican John McCain called for the release of Cuban political prisoners and said the United States should look for ways to encourage democratic reforms in Cuba.

"The United States must pursue an active policy that does everything possible to advance the cause of freedom, democracy and opportunity in Cuba," Clinton said.

Obama said the U.S. must be prepared to take steps to normalize relations with Cuba and to ease the embargo if Cuba's new leaders "begins opening Cuba to meaningful democratic change."

McCain underscored that "freedom for the Cuban people is not yet at hand."

In Congress, more than 100 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle signed a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging a "tough-minded review" of current U.S. policy toward Cuba, which they said had left the United States "without influence at this critical moment" on the island.

"After fifty years, it is time for us to think and act anew," they said.

Separately, Rep. Howard L. Berman, D-Calif., the acting chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he would call hearings on the development that "may provide an opportunity for the United States to inject creativity and fresh ideas into that policy to better achieve our common goal of bringing freedom to the people of Cuba."

Meanwhile, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami-area Republican who was born in Havana, said Castro's resignation was irrelevant because his regime had already "done great harm to the suffering Cuban people." She urged the administration to look into indicting both Castros for Cuba's 1996 shoot-down of a humanitarian relief plane.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is of Cuban descent, said Castro's resignation "is not the cause for celebration that some would believe. This does not represent the replacement of totalitarianism with democracy. Instead, it is the replacement of one dictator with another."

Cuban leaders have often expressed willingness to deal with the United States - but only on Cuban terms - conditions that look nothing like the U.S. demands laid down to lift the embargo in the Helms-Burton Act of 1996.

The law grants U.S. presidents broad leeway over how to enforce the embargo but the embargo rules themselves will stand as long as either Raul or Fidel are in power, according to Helms-Burton.

Still, Raul Castro has repeatedly offered to improve relations with Washington, even if the Bush administration shows no sign of taking him up on it. He has hinted he favors greater, if still limited economic freedom. And he's already allowed more, if limited, public criticism of the government.

Since taking the provisional presidency, he has extradited three U.S. fugitives, reduced the number of Cuban political prisoners by more than 20 percent and refrained from imposing the death penalty in two military mutinies where firing squads seemed likely. He also said Cuban forces would recapture any terror suspects who escape from the Guantanamo prison.

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