WASHINGTON — In a significant new initiative, President Bush today plans to allow increased humanitarian aid to Cuba but demand far-reaching political reforms by Fidel Castro as a prerequisite for easing U.S. economic sanctions against the island, administration officials said Sunday.
In a major speech marking Cuban Independence Day, the president intends to offer private humanitarian aid, scholarships and U.S.-Cuban mail service.
But in excerpts of his remarks made available Sunday night, the president insists that the 4-decade-old trade embargo will remain unless Cuba holds internationally monitored National Assembly elections next year, releases political prisoners, reforms its economy and allows a free opposition and independent trade unions.
"Without major steps by Cuba to open up its political system and its economic system, trade with Cuba will not help the Cuban people--it will merely enrich Castro and his cronies and prop up their dictatorship," according to the text.
"Full normalization of relations with Cuba--diplomatic recognition, open trade and a robust aid program--will only be possible when Cuba has a new government that is fully democratic, when the rule of law is respected and when the human rights of all Cubans are fully protected," it said.
The president is scheduled to deliver his speech twice today, first at the White House this morning and then in midafternoon in Miami.
While Bush has long opposed any easing of sanctions against Cuba, he came under fresh pressure to change his stance last week during a six-day visit to Cuba by former President Carter, a Democrat.
While in Havana, Carter called for an end to the trade embargo, as well as for political reforms. Many members of Congress are joining the call for easing sanctions. So are some Cuban Americans--especially the younger ones, breaking from a once-solid united front against Castro, who overthrew the government of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and imposed a Communist dictatorship. When the Cuban president began confiscating property and nationalizing U.S. companies, the United States responded with a trade embargo.
Among the series of steps outlined in his "Initiative for a New Cuba," Bush intends to:
* Call for a resumption of mail service to and from the island.
* Establish scholarships in the United States for the families of political prisoners and for Cuban students and professionals seeking to build independent civil institutions.
* Provide direct financial aid to the people of Cuba through nongovernmental groups and make it easier for U.S. religious and other private organizations to provide humanitarian assistance there.
The Bush excerpts describe the new U.S. initiative as an attempt to "mitigate the suffering" of the Cuban people and as the start of "an ongoing, flexible and responsive campaign designed to generate rapid and peaceful change within Cuba."
There was no immediate response from Havana, but Castro seems unlikely to meet the multitude of demands that Bush is laying out.
But if Castro does, the excerpts indicate, Bush will "work with the United States Congress to ease the ban on trade and travel between Cuba and the United States.... With real political and economic reform, trade can benefit the Cuban people and allow them to share in the progress of our times."
The excerpts make no mention of imposing tougher restrictions on travel to Cuba--a possibility that was widely rumored last week. Current restrictions forbid travel to Cuba, though they are widely circumnavigated.
It was unclear Sunday whether Bush intends to mention the accusations made earlier this month by a senior State Department official that Cuba is developing biological weapons technology--which, if true, could qualify Cuba as a new member of what Bush has described as an "axis of evil."
In his Jan. 29 State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, Bush used that phrase to brand Iran, Iraq and North Korea, warning that they could make weapons of mass destruction available to terrorists.
Shortly before Carter went to Cuba, Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton said in a speech here that the United States believes that Cuba "has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort" and that it has "provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states."
The controversy escalated when Carter, while still in Cuba, said publicly that senior U.S. intelligence officials in pre-trip briefings had told him that there was no evidence that Cuba was aiding terrorists in such fashion.
In his most recent public remarks about Castro, on Tuesday, Bush called him "a dictator," adding: "My message to the Cuban people is: 'Demand freedom, and you've got a president who stands with you.'"
According to Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, who was briefed on Bush's message, the president also is likely to express his support for a referendum in Cuba asking voters whether they favor civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly, and amnesty for political prisoners, the Associated Press reported.
While in Miami, Bush is scheduled to speak at a fund-raising dinner for his younger brother, Jeb, who is seeking a second term as Florida's governor.
The president's remarks are likely to be warmly received by the politically active Cuban American community in South Florida--a crucial base of support for Republicans in the Sunshine State. Florida is expected to be a swing state in the 2004 presidential election, as it was in 2000.
Times wire services contributed to this report.