BUSH URGES CUBA REFORM
WILLIAM E. GIBSON and LUISA YANEZ, Staff WritersSUN-SENTINEL, Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale)
President Bush called on Cuban President Fidel Castro to hold free elections in a broadcast beamed at the island on Monday, holding out the olive branch of improved relations if Castro complies and stopping short of demanding the ouster of the Cuban ruler.
Bush marked Cuban Independence Day by making the speech over Radio Marti and by meeting at the White House with two Cuban exiles from Miami: a former Cuban political prisoner and the sister of a current prisoner.
"If Cuba holds fully free and fair elections, under international supervision, respects human rights and stops subverting its neighbors, we can expect relations between our two countries to improve significantly," Bush said in the address.
A high-ranking State Department official, speaking in Miami, said that Cubans need not fear an unprovoked attack from the United States.
Cuba watchers in this country interpreted the statements as an attempt to nudge Cuba toward a peaceful transition, appealing to one faction of the government that may be receptive to democratic reforms. Cuban-American leaders, and apparently the State Department, are operating under the assumption that Castro would lose a free election.
The State Department was particularly eager to undermine Castro's argument that his people must rally round him against a potential U.S. attack.
Bush did not discount the possibility that Castro could remain in power under such an arrangement. But a State Department official, who insisted on anonymity, said: "That might be expecting a little too much of Castro."
Officials at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington were unavailable for comment.
Jorge Mas Canosa, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, a powerful exile lobby, said the time is right to challenge Castro to try democracy. Cuba is enduring a bleak economic period and Cubans are escaping the island on rafts at a record rate, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
"We want to get the message to Castro's inner circle that the obstacle to (solving) all their problems is Castro," Mas said.
Some other Cuban exiles welcomed Bush's announcement on Monday calling for free elections in Cuba, while other exiles were angered by the conciliatory tone of the message.
"We stand firm in our belief that there should be no dealings with Fidel Castro and no proposals to Cuba from the United States," said Antonio Varona, president of the Cuban Patriotic Council, an umbrella group of 180 political organizations.
Varona's statement came after Bernard W. Aronson, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, spoke at a luncheon of the foundation.
In the middle of Aronson's speech at the Omni International Hotel, a tape of the president's announcement was played to the audience of about 900, who applauded enthusiastically.
On May 20, 1902, the first Cuban president was inaugurated at the head of a free Republic, four years after the Spanish-American War ended Spain's control. The United States broke off relations with Havana after Castro's socialist revolution toppled the Batista regime in 1959.
"Today, we again reiterate unwavering commitment for a free and democratic Cuba. Nothing shall turn us away from this objective," Bush said in his broadcast.
"I call on Fidel Castro to free political prisoners in Cuba and allow the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to investigate possible human rights violations in Cuba," he said.
"Ninety-nine percent of the people of this hemisphere live either in a democracy or a country that is on the road to democracy," Bush said. "One percent live under the hemisphere's last dictator, Fidel Castro."
This call for democracy in Cuba represents a threat from the United States, Aronson said.
"The people of Cuba are told they face some threat of invasion from the United States," Aronson said. "But this is not true, and I believe the Cuban people know it. The United States does not threaten Cuba."
After his radio address, Bush told his Miami visitors: "There will not be any change in policy toward Cuba until free and fair elections are held," said Frank Calzon, Washington director for Freedom House, who acted as interpreter.
Meeting the president were Ernesto Diaz Rodriguez, a poet who was released from confinement in Cuba six months ago, and Belen Chanes de Lopez, sister of Mario Chanes de Armas, who will complete a 30-year sentence in July and is considered the political prisoner serving the longest sentence anywhere in the world.
Diaz said Castro cannot afford to hold free elections "because it would be evident they do not have the support of the Cuban people."
Chanes had been at Castro's side in the attack against Batista's army barracks at the start of the 1959 revolution, but he later opposed the growing number of communists in the new regime, Calzon said.
The exiles said they urged the president to help political prisoners of Cuba, in particular Chanes de Armas, whom they fear will not be allowed to leave the country after his release from prison. The exiles asked that a visa be arranged for him.
"The president smiled and said, 'I think that can be arranged,"' Calzon related.
From the text of President Bush's radio speech to commemorate the 89th anniversary of Cuban independence: Today, we again reiterate unwavering commitment for a free and democratic Cuba. Nothing shall turn us away from this objective.
I ask Fidel Castro to make this an independence day to remember. I call on Fidel Castro to free political prisoners in Cuba and allow the United Nations commission on human rights to investigate possible human rights violations in Cuba.
I challenge Mr. Castro to let Cuba live in peace with its neighbors. And I challenge Mr. Castro to follow the examples of countries like Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay and Chile in their achievement of new democracies.
Put democracy to a test: Permit political parties to organize, and a free press to thrive. Hold free and fair elections under international supervision.
Ninety-nine percent of the people of this hemisphere live either in a democracy or a country that is on the road to democracy; 1 percent live under the hemisphere's last dictator, Fidel Castro.
On Cuban independence day, our goals for the Cuban nation, shared by Cubans everywhere, are plain and clear: freedom and democracy, Mr. Castro, not sometime, not someday, but now.
If Cuba holds fully free and fair elections under international supervision, respects human rights, and stops subverting its neighbors, we can expect relations between our two countries to improve significantly.