WASHINGTON – Hoping to make amends with a key political constituency, President Bush said Friday the United States would tighten enforcement of its embargo on Cuba and provide a haven to more fleeing Cubans while planning for the day when Fidel Castro's (search) rule comes to an end.
"Clearly, the Castro regime will not change by its own choice. But Cuba must change," Bush told an invited audience of Cuban exiles, anti-Castro groups and others during a Rose Garden ceremony.
Bush said the United States also would step up enforcement of existing restrictions against the communist government, such as the ban on American tourism, and would increase inspections of people and shipments going to and from Cuba. He alluded to a crackdown on an "illicit sex trade" surrounding Cuba's tourism industry, but offered no specific evidence of such a problem.
Bush's announcement came as he is gearing up for his re-election bid next year. Some of Castro's most ardent Cuban-American opponents — who say Bush should have done more to foster democratic change in Cuba — also represent a vital voting bloc in Florida, a vote-rich swing state that Bush has visited frequently since taking office in 2001.
Friday was a holiday in Cuba and there was no immediate reaction from the government or the news media it controls. Bush's message was not carried on local radio and television.
In Havana, Vladimiro Roca, who was arrested in 1997 for publishing a document critical of Castro, said Bush's words were uplifting, but contained "very little new." He said he agreed with Bush's plan to crack down on illegal tourism, saying "American tourism won't bring democracy to Cuba."
Bush promised to increase Cuban immigration via a public outreach campaign to identify "the many routes to safe and legal entry" to the United States, and pledged to funnel even more messages to the Cuban people through Radio and TV Marti (search).
"We know that the enemy of every tyrant is the truth," Bush said. "We're determined to bring the truth to the people who suffer under Fidel Castro."
Bush said he has directed Secretary of State Colin Powell and Housing Secretary Mel Martinez to chair a commission that will develop a plan to help Cuba move to democracy whenever Castro, who has ruled Cuba since 1959, leaves power.
Asked about his new role, Powell said, "It's prudent for us, as Castro gets older and his regime gets rustier, to start to think about the fate of millions of people in Cuba who one day will be free."
Powell, in a meeting with a small group of reporters, said he will be working on the kinds of policies the United States should have in place at such a time.
Amnesty International expressed some concerns about Bush's proposals, saying they were "far from forward-looking" and would hurt people they were meant to help.
"At a time when the U.S. should put effective human rights strategies at the core of its Cuba policy, it may well have succeeded in doing the opposite," said executive director William F. Schulz.
Bush's relations with his backers in Miami hit a low point in July when Washington returned 15 migrants to Cuba after receiving assurances they would not be executed for hijacking a government-owned boat that was intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard.
The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, took issue with the decision, saying it wasn't right to send the Cubans back.
Dagoberto Rodriguez, head of Cuba's diplomatic mission in the United States, told a news conference Thursday that Bush is "acting like a lawless cowboy" in an attempt to please Cuban-Americans in south Florida, a constituency he called "a small minority of extremists."