WASHINGTON – President Bush sent a message of both hope and caution Monday as he promised to maintain the U.S. embargo against Cuba until the government there adopted a wide-ranging series of political and economic reforms.
In two speeches marking Cuban Independence Day, the president offered a set of proposals designed to return Cuba to the "community of democracies" in the Western Hemisphere.
The "Initiative for a New Cuba" calls for free and open elections next year in the National Assembly and the opening of Cuba's economy through a series of improvements, including better treatment of Cuban workers and their ability to form independent trade unions.
"One hundred years ago, Cuba declared her independence and nearly 50 years ago, nearly a half century ago, Cuba's independence and hope for democracy were hijacked by a brutal dictator who cared everything for his own power and nada for the Cuban people," Bush said, denouncing Fidel Castro at a Miami event. Attending were Cuban-American entertainers Gloria Estefan and Jon Secada, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, who immigrated from Cuba as a child.
"All elections in Castro's Cuba have been a fraud. The voices of the Cuban people have been suppressed, and their votes have been meaningless. That's the truth," Bush said in an earlier speech at the White House.
"Start to release your chokehold on the working people and on enterprise," Bush demanded in Miami. "Then — and only then — will we talk about easing sanctions, and not before."
The president was introduced by his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, who is seeking re-election in November.
Thousands of Cuban-Americans roared approval at Bush's remarks, interrupting him again and again with standing ovations and cries of "Libertad! Libertad!" and "Cuba, si, Castro, no!"
Bush shouted back, "Viva Cuba libre!"
Bush's speech represented his administration's most comprehensive Cuba policy statement to date.
"If Cuba's government takes all necessary steps to ensure that the 2003 elections are certifiably free and fair, and if Cuba begins to adopt meaningful market-based reforms, then — and only then — will I work with the United States Congress to ease the ban on trade and travel between the two countries," Bush said.
At present, trade with Cuba is restricted for the most part to U.S. sales of medical-related goods and the cash-only sale of food.
Americans who wish to travel to Cuba generally must receive a license from the Treasury Department. Those with a professional interest in Cuba or with family ties on the island are eligible for licenses. Tourism by Americans is forbidden.
Bush's speeches came just days after former President Carter, during a visit to Cuba, urged an end to the U.S. embargo.
Democrats on Capitol Hill generally expressed disappointment with Bush's statements.
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on Latin America, said Bush "set forth a laundry list of actions that the Castro government must take before the U.S. takes even one step toward modifying U.S. policies.
"By doing so he has guaranteed that the current political system in Cuba will remain the same."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the embargo "has not accomplished one thing it was meant to accomplish. What a foolish policy it is."
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of a group of House members opposed to current U.S. Cuba policy, said the embargo has been applied "with absolutely no success. After 40 years of failure, we need to recognize that this approach is clearly not working and try something new."
In Cuba, some leading dissidents did not approve of Bush's hard-line stand.
"Changes have to be made but changes have to be made on both sides," said Vladimiro Roca, who was released from prison in Cuba earlier this month. "The prickly relationship between the two countries ... can hurt our hopes for advancing a transition to democracy."
Another human rights activist, Elizardo Sanchez, praised Bush for his support of the Varela Project to get a national referendum on civil rights.
Bush said the embargo was not an end in itself. "The goal of the United States policy toward Cuba is not a permanent embargo on Cuba's economy. The goal is freedom for Cuba's people."
In mastery of Spanish, Jeb Bush has a clear edge over his more famous brother. His introduction of the president was smooth and virtually accent-free.
The president said at the outset, "Voy a hablar en espanol" ("I am going to speak in Spanish"). He then backed off, saying he didn't want to "destruir un idioma bonito" ("destroy a beautiful language").
Later, Bush attended an event designed to raise $2 million for the Florida Republican Party. The host was Armando Codina, a real estate developer and former business partner of Jeb Bush.
In his morning speech, delivered from the East Room of the White House, Bush said Castro will have a chance to establish democratic credentials next year when voters elect members of the National Assembly.
As a rule, only loyal members of the Communist Party are eligible to run.
Bush said that Article 71 of the Cuban Constitution calls for the election of deputies by "free, direct and secret vote."
Americans are ambivalent on U.S.-Cuban relations, according to a Fox News poll. In a survey conducted last week, 44 percent of people said the United States should normalize relations with Cuba, while 41 percent said the embargo should remain in place. However, 63 percent of the 900 registered voters asked, said that Americans should be allowed to travel freely between the two nations.
The Cuban-American community, however, strongly favors Bush's hard-line stance and helped propel him to victory in Florida.
To get restrictions eased, Bush said Cuba must:
— Allow opposition parties to speak freely and organize.
— Allow independent trade unions.
— Free all political prisoners.
— Allow human rights organizations to visit Cuba to ensure that the conditions for free elections are being created.
— Allow outside observers to monitor 2003 elections.
— End discriminatory practices against Cuban workers.
Fox News' Jim Angle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.