Bush Criticizes Raul Castro Leadership as 'Empty Gestures'

President Bush said Wednesday that Cuba's post-Fidel Castro leadership has made only "empty gestures at reform" and rejected calls for easing of U.S. restrictions on the communist island.

"Until there is a change of heart and a change of compassion and a change of how the Cuban government treats its people, there's no change at all," Bush said at the State Department to the Council of Americas, a business group that advocates for democracy and open markets in the Western Hemisphere. "Cuba will not be a land of liberty so long as free expression is punished and free speech can take place only in hushed whispers and silent prayers. And Cuba will not become a place of prosperity just by easing restrictions on the sale of products that the average Cuban cannot afford."

The White House also said Wednesday that the president spoke by videoconference this week with democratic activists in Cuba.

The developments are part of a stepped-up effort by Bush to talk about Cuba and press for political change since Fidel Castro officially stepped down in February after nearly a half-century ruling the island. Fidel's brother, Raul, took over as president in the ailing leader's place. He had been provisional president since Fidel Castro underwent emergency surgery in July 2006.

For years, lawmakers of both parties have been trying to chip away at the United States' Cold War-era trade, travel and home visit restrictions aimed at undermining a hostile government just 90 miles from U.S. shores. They argue that the leadership change in Havana provides the opportunity to lift the embargo.

But Bush has stressed that a new Castro does not mean a new Cuba, and he did so again on Wednesday.

He said Cuba's government must allow Cubans "to pick their own leaders in free and fair elections," release all political prisoners, and respect human rights "in word and deed."

"This is the policy of the United States and it must not change until the people of Cuba are free," the president said.