WASHINGTON — Asserting that peaceful pressure is growing on Cuba in response to "the dying gasps of a failed regime," President Bush on Wednesday called on Cuban authorities to abandon their iron grip and promised U.S. assistance if the island took a democratic course in the post-Fidel Castro era.
Bush said the United States would spearhead an international fund to support Cuba if it provided broad freedoms to its people.
The president's remarks were not timed to events in Cuba or efforts by the international community to nudge the island nation toward democracy, a senior aide said. Nevertheless, they suggested a renewed effort by Bush to apply pressure on Castro and his younger brother Raul, who is serving as the provisional president -- and to make it clear that the United States would not be satisfied if the post-Fidel period did not lead to a significant opening of Cuban political and economic life.
Life on the island will not improve, Bush said, "by exchanging one dictator for another. It will not improve if we seek accommodation with a new tyranny in the interests of stability."
Declaring that the United States would not give "oxygen to a criminal regime," he said, "We will not support the old way with new faces, the old system held together by new chains."
Rather, he said, Cuba must allow freedom of speech, association and the press, and change its government through regular, free and fair multiparty elections.
Raul Castro, who took over leadership of the country after his brother underwent surgery last year, recently expressed a willingness to open discussions with the U.S. If the next American presidential administration "desists from their arrogance and decides to converse in a civilized manner, it would be a welcome change," he said in a July speech during ceremonies marking the start of the Cuban Revolution.
In Havana on Wednesday, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque termed Bush's plans "equivalent to the re-conquest of Cuba by force" and said they "give an idea of the level of frustration, of desperation and of personal hatred toward Cuba."
He said most Cubans backed the 1959 revolution led by Castro, making the idea of an internal uprising a "fantasy" and "politically impossible."
Bush spoke Wednesday at the State Department before an audience of government officials, members of Congress and others with strong interest in Cuba's transition -- among them, on stage, an invited group of family members of Cuban political prisoners.
The speech did not depart from long-standing U.S. policy and legislation that for more than a decade has conditioned U.S. support for Cuba on commitment to democracy there by any post-Castro government.
"The question is how do you promote democratic change in a country that has been a dictatorship since 1959," said Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
But DeShazo said that nothing in the speech suggested that the Bush administration expected a new Cuban leader would make dramatic changes.
Bush said his speech was being carried to Cuba by the U.S. government-supported radio and TV Marti.
With that in mind, he said he had a message for members of the island's military and for government officials: "You've got to make a choice. Will you defend a disgraced and dying order by using force against your own people? Or will you embrace your people's desire for change?"
The president cited shifts toward democracy in Eastern Europe, Spain and Chile as examples that Cuba might follow in an effort to achieve a peaceful transition.
With Fidel Castro, 81, in questionable health and keeping largely out of the public eye, Bush said, "the day is coming when the Cuban people will chart their own course for a better life . . . [and] have the freedom they have awaited for so long."
He also said the United States would continue to maintain its trade embargo on Cuba, which he said the government there used as a "scapegoat" for its economic woes and lack of consumer goods.
The U.S. argues that relaxing the trade embargo would only serve to enrich the government's leaders and maintain their control over political and economic life.
The Associated Press was used in compiling this report.