WASHINGTON – The White House rejected pleas by former President Carter and farm-state lawmakers to lift the trade embargo against Fidel Castro's Cuba on Wednesday, pledging an even tougher U.S. policy to undermine "one of the last great tyrants left on earth."
President Bush will hew to a hard-line stance against the Castro government while seeking ways to ease hardships on the Cuban people when he spells out the policy next week, advisers said. The president hopes to curb what aides concede is growing momentum to ease restrictions against Cuba.
"The president believes that the trade embargo is a vital part of America's foreign policy and human rights policy toward Cuba, because trade with Cuba does not benefit the people of Cuba — it's used to prop up a repressive regime," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
The White House has been put on the defensive by critics who say the four-decades-old embargo has failed to produce democratic reforms while making everyday life harder for the Cuban people. Bush also was accused of shaping his policy to win support of Cuban Americans, a force in Florida politics and thus a key to his re-election hopes.
Bush plans to unveil his Cuban policy at the White House, visit a Cuban-American community in Miami and headline a fund-raiser for his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — all on Monday.
"The embargo should stay so long as there is no freedom in Cuba," the governor told reporters in Tallahassee, Fla.
With Carter still visiting Cuba, the president's brother said: "All I know about Fidel Castro is this: He manipulates people that come to the island. He uses them for his own purposes." In Washington, White House advisers expressed similar sentiments in private about Carter's trip.
Describing Bush's new policy in broad terms, aides said the president will seek to toughen U.S. action against the Cuban government and soften the approach toward the Cuban people. Measures aimed at the Castro government are designed to inject elements of democracy.
Bush will seek ways to plant seeds of free enterprise such as establishing government-business foundations modeled after an approach the U.S. took with Poland as that nation emerged from communism, one official said.
The president is likely to propose increased aid to dissidents and will seek to overcome jamming of Radio Marti and TV Marti broadcasts, according to outside activists who advise the White House. However, administration officials cautioned that those plans are not the focus of Bush's speech Monday, and noted that he made similar pledges last July.
The president previewed his remarks, aides said, when he told reporters Tuesday: "My message to the Cuban people is: Demand freedom, and you've got a president who stands with you."
While Secretary of State Colin Powell called Carter "straightforward and tough" for telling Cubans to embrace democracy, White House officials complained in private that the former president's anti-embargo rhetoric threatened to swamp Bush's message.
Their frustration was increased Wednesday when a group of 40 lawmakers announced support for easing the embargo.
"For over 40 years, our policy toward Cuba has yielded no results," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a House International Relations Committee member. "Castro hasn't held free and fair elections, he hasn't improved human rights and he hasn't stopped preaching his hate for democracy and the U.S.
The House's Cuba Working Group proposed a nine-point program that called for repealing a travel ban, allowing unsubsidized exports of agricultural and medical products, communicating with Cubans through scholarships instead of TV and Radio Marti, cooperating on hemispheric security and environmental protection and settling property claims.
"This is not about foreign policy. We are talking about Florida politics," said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.
Fleischer denied that politics played a role.
Earlier, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle emerged from a congressional leadership meeting with Bush to say the United States and Cuba "must tear down the barriers that do exist." He praised Carter for visiting Cuba.
Critics of Bush's stance point to the fact that he favors trade with China, a country accused of severe human rights abuses, and has joined in the war against terrorism with countries such as Malaysia with borderline democracies.
Fleischer said China has "been moving in the area of democratic reform" since it opened its doors to trade while the Cuban public has not benefited from trade between the government and its allies.
"The president believes that trade with Cuba ends up giving the government more resources to repress its people," Fleischer said. "Cuba is one of the last great tyrants left on earth."