Official Urges Castro to Follow Democratic Provisions in Constitution

Cuba could meet U.S. demands for progress toward democracy without dismantling the country's communist system if President Fidel Castro would apply democratic provisions in Cuba's constitution, a senior official said Tuesday.

Briefing reporters, the official said the proposal, outlined last week by President Bush, was consistent with long-standing U.S. policy toward Cuba but offers a road map for democratic transformation not previously aired.

Bush discussed the issue in a morning speech in Washington and a second address later before Cuban-American supporters in Miami. He called Castro a brutal dictator, but if adopted, his proposal apparently could lead to eased U.S. sanctions with Castro still in office.

Castro took power in 1959, and the United States imposed a near-total trade embargo in the early 1960s. It remains virtually intact, although it has been loosened slightly in recent years.

The proposal notes that Article 71 of the Cuban constitution specifies the election of National Assembly representatives by "free direct and secret vote."

If Cuba should embrace the provision in next year's assembly elections, it would cease to be the totalitarian regime it has been for the past 43 years, the official said. "It would no longer be Castro's Cuba," the official said. "It would be a different country."

He noted that a free election implies the right of opposition parties to organize, criticize the government and compete in the elections. At present, only candidates approved by the Communist Party can run for an assembly seat.

In any case, there appears little chance that Cuba will change its ways.

Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon mocked Bush's insistence that Cuba hold multiparty elections in 2003. "You have to have a lot of nerve to go to Miami and speak of honest and clean elections," Alarcon said, a reference to the disputed voting results in Florida during the November 2000 presidential balloting.

In his speech, Bush said, "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."

He said he would not heed calls to lift the trade embargo unless Castro releases political prisoners, conducts independently monitored elections and creates a system that is fully democratic.