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Bush Speaks on Cuba Policy; Cuban Dissidents React

Aired May 20, 2002 - 10:14   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We want to go over back to the White House because now President Bush is about to begin his remarks this morning there. We expect to hear some words about Mr. Bush's plans for Cuba policy.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today, we honor the ties of friendship and family and faith that unite the Cuban people and the people of the United States. We honor the contributions that Cuban-Americans have made to all aspects of our national life.

And today, I'm issuing a proposal and a challenge that can put Cuba on the path to liberty.

BUSH: I appreciate our secretary of state being here. He and I take this issue very seriously. He loves freedom as much as I love freedom.

I want to thank Mel Martinez, a graduate of Pedro Pan (ph) for being a secretary, doing a great job. Welcome.

I appreciate members of the diplomatic corps who are here. Thank you all for coming. I'm honored to have you here.

I want to thank Senator George Allen from the Commonwealth of Virginia.

I want to thank Congressman Dan Burton, Mr. Chairman, and of course two great members of the United States Congress, people who have got a lot to offer, a lot of sound advice, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart. Thank you all for coming.


Cuba's independence one century ago today was the inspiration of great thinkers, such as Felix Varela. It was the result of determination and talent on the part of a great statesman, such as Jose Marti, and great soldiers, such as Antonio Maseo (ph) and Maximo Gomez (ph). Most of all, Cuba's independence was the product of the great courage and sacrifice of the Cuban people.

Today and everyday for the past 43 years, that legacy of courage has been insulted by a tyrant who uses brutal methods to enforce a bankrupt vision. That legacy has been debased by a relic from another era who has turned a beautiful island into a prison.

In a career of oppression, Mr. Castro has imported nuclear-armed ballistic missile, and he has exported his military forces to encourage civil war abroad. He is a dictator who jails and tortures and exiles his political opponents. We know this. The Cuban people know this, and the world knows this.

After all, just a month ago, the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights, in a resolution proposed by the nations of Latin America, called upon Cuba's government to finally -- to finally begin respecting the human rights of its people.

Through all their pains and depravation, the Cuban people's aspirations for freedom are undiminished. We see this today in Havana where more than 11,000 brave citizens have petitioned their government for a referendum on basic freedoms. If that referendum is allowed, it can be a prelude, a beginning for real change in Cuba.

The United States has no designs on Cuban sovereignty. It's not a part of our strategy or a part of our vision. In fact, the United States has been a strong and consistent supporter of freedom for the Cuban people.


And it is important for those who love freedom on that beautiful island to know that our support for them will never waver.


Today, I'm announcing an initiative for a new Cuba that offers Cuba's government a way forward toward democracy and hope and better relations with the United States. Cuba is scheduled to hold elections to its national assembly in 2003. Let me read Article 71 of the Cuban constitution.

BUSH: It says the national assembly is composed of deputies elected by free, direct and secret vote. That's what the constitution says.

Yet, since 1959, no election in Cuba has come close to meeting these standards. In most elections, there's been one candidate, Castro's candidate. 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. [Speaking in Spanish.]

In 2003, national assembly elections in Cuba, Cuba has the opportunity to offer Cuban voters the substance of democracy, not its hollow, empty forms.

Opposition parties should have the freedom to organize, assemble and speak with equal access to all airwaves. All political prisoners must be released and allowed to participate in the election process. Human rights organizations should be free to visit Cuba to ensure that the conditions for free elections are being created, and the 2003 elections should be monitored by objective outside observers.

These are the minimum steps necessary to make sure that next year's elections are a true expression of the will of the Cuban people.

I also challenge Cuba's government to ease its strangle hold, to change its strangle hold on private economic activity. Political and economic freedoms go hand in hand. And if Cuba opens its political system, fundamental questions about its backward economic system will come into sharper focus.

If the Cuban government truly wants to advance the cause of workers, of Cuban workers, surely, it will permit trade unions to exist outside of government control.

If Cuba wants to create more good-paying jobs, private employers have to be able to negotiate with and pay workers of their own choosing without the government telling who they can hire and who they must fire.

If Cuba wants to attract badly needed investment from abroad, property rights must be respected.

If the government wants to improve the daily lives of its people, goods and services produced in Cuba should be made available to all Cuban citizens.

Workers employed by foreign companies should be paid directly by their employers, instead of having the government seize their hard currency wages and pass on a pittance in the form of pesos.

And the signs of hotels, reading [Speaking in Spanish.] should finally be taken down.

Without major steps by Cuba to open up its political system and its economic system, trade with Cuba will not help the Cuban people.


It's important for Americans to understand, without political reform, without economic reform, trade with Cuba will merely enrich Fidel Castro and his promise.


Well-intentioned ideas about trade will merely prop up this dictator, enrich his cronies and enhance the totalitarian regime. It will not help the Cuban people.

With real political and economic reform, trade can benefit the Cuban people and allow them to share in the progress of our times. If Cuba's government takes all the necessary steps to ensure that the 2003 elections are certifiably free and fair -- certifiably free and fair -- and if Cuba also begins to adopt meaningful market-based reforms, then, and only then, I will work with the United States Congress to ease the ban on trade and travel between our two countries.


BUSH: Meaningful reform on Cuba's part will be answered with a meaningful American response.

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.


Today's initiative invites the Cuban government to trust and respect human citizens, and I urge other democracies in this hemisphere and beyond to use their influence on Cuba's government to allow free and fair national assembly elections and to push for real and meaningful and verifiable reform. Full normalization of relations with Cuba, diplomatic recognition, open trade and a robust aid program will only be possible when Cuba has a new government that is fully democratic, when the rule of law is respected and when the human rights of all Cubans are fully protected.


Yet under the initiative for a new Cuba, the United States recognizes that freedom sometimes grows step by step, and we'll encourage those steps. The current of history runs strongly toward freedom.

BUSH: Our plan is to accelerate freedom's progress in Cuba in every way possible, just as the United States and our democratic friends and allies did successfully in places like Poland or in South Africa.

Even as we seek to end tyranny, we will work to make life better for people living under and resisting Castro's rule.

Today, I'm announcing a series of actions that will directly benefit the Cuban people and give them greater control of their economic and political destiny. My administration will ease restrictions on humanitarian assistance by legitimate U.S. religious and other nongovernmental organizations that directly serve the needs of the Cuban people and will help build Cuban civil society.

And the United States will provide such groups with direct assistance that can be used for humanitarian and entrepreneurial activities. Our government will offer scholarships in the United States for Cuban students and professionals who try to build independent civil institutions in Cuba and scholarships for family members of political prisoners.


We are willing to negotiate direct mail service between the United States and Cuba. My administration will also continue to look for ways to modernize Radio and TV Marti, because even the strongest walls of oppression cannot stand when the flood gates of information and knowledge are open. And in the months ahead my administration will continue to work with leaders all around our country, leaders who love freedom for Cuba to implement new ways to empower individuals to enhance the chance for freedom.

The United States will continue to enforce economic sanctions on Cuba and the ban on travel to Cuba until Cuba's government improves that it is committed to real reform.


BUSH: We will continue to prohibit U.S. financing for Cuban purchases of U.S. agricultural goods because this would just be a foreign aid program in disguise which would benefit the current regime.


Today's initiative offers Cuba's government a different path leading to a different future, a future of greater democracy and prosperity and respect. With real reform in Cuba, our countries can begin chipping away at four decades of distrust and division, and the choice rests with Mr. Castro.

Today, there is only one nation in our hemisphere that is not a democracy -- only one. There's only one national leader who's position of power owes more to bullets than ballots.

Fidel Castro has a chance to escape this lonely and stagnate isolation. If he accepts our offer, he can bring help to his people and hope to our relations.

If Mr. Castro refuses our offer, he will be protecting his cronies at the expense of his people, and eventually, despite all his tools of oppression, Fidel Castro will need to answer to his people.


BUSH: Jose Marti said, "Barriers of ideas are stronger than barricades of stone." For the benefit of Cuba's people, it is time for Mr. Castro to cast aside old and failed ideas and to start to think differently about the future.

Today could mark a new dawn in a long friendship between our people, but only if the Castro regime sees the light.

Cuba's independence was achieved a century ago. It was hijacked nearly half a century ago.

Yet the independent spirit of the Cuban people has never faltered, and it has never been stronger than it is today.

The United States is proud to stand with all Cubans and all Cuban-Americans who love freedom, and we will continue to stand with you until liberty returns to the land you love so well.

Viva Cuba Libre (ph).


HARRIS: President Bush there wrapping up his remarks in the East room this morning, and as expected, Mr. Bush announced that the U.S. policy which is enforcing an embargo on trade and travel to and from Cuba will continue. That policy is going to continue, he says, unless and until Fidel Castro guarantees a free and fair election for national assemblies and also affects some market-based reforms that can be proven.

He says, then and only then will I work to lift the travel ban and trade embargo against Cuba. He says the choice is now up to Mr. Castro.

He did offer today a series of actions that he says he is willing to do to enact or help the dissidents there in Cuba who are fighting for more human rights there. He says that he will ease the restriction on humanitarian assistance by what he stressed as legitimate -- offered by legitimate humanitarian groups here, both faith-based organizations as well as nongovernmental organizations here in the U.S. He will also provide direct assistance to those agencies who are trying to affect some more humanitarian assistance into Cuba.

He also says he is going to recommend a new program of scholarships that will be offered to Cuban students and teachers there, and somehow help -- actually, help develop their educational system, and he says he is also willing to negotiate direct mail service to and from the island of Cuba.

Interestingly enough, one of the things that President Bush, as I say, is not going to happen is this trade embargo is going to stay in place until these changes in the political system and economic system are seen there on the ground in Cuba, and he says this -- and this is in direct disagreement with the words that we heard from former president Jimmy Carter, who was just traveling to Cuba just in the past week where he sat down with dissidents who told him that actually starting trade with Cuba would actually help their cause.

Mr. Bush here says that unless Castro opens the political system and the economic system, trade will not help the Cuban people. It would only enrich Fidel Castro and his cronies.

It will be interesting to hear what the Cuban people have to say about that, and our Lucia Newman, our Havana Bureau Chief, is sitting with some this morning who have been listening to the words of President Bush. Let's check in with her now -- hello, Lucia.


As you can probably imagine, this speech was not broadcast live on Cuban state television or radio, but we have invited a group of prominent dissidents -- opponents of the Cuban government, to come here, listen to the speech, and give us their views on what he said.

I'd like to start with Elizardo Sanchez, who runs the Human Rights and Reconciliation Commission here -- Mr. Sanchez, what did you think of the speech? Was it what you expected, is there anything that you objected to?

ELIZARDO SANCHEZ, HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST (through translator): I was really surprised about the tranquil tone of Mr. Bush's address, and I could say very clearly that everything that was said regarding human rights -- it's something that we can support as dissident Cubans on human rights, especially with political people that are not well off right now.

The rest, unfortunately, I think that we had more of the same -- the same rhetoric of the times of the Cold War, and I don't want to compare one's statistician with another one, but my personal opinion is that the message of former president Jimmy Carter transmitted to Cuba for the entire country was more fruitful and positive than what has been said by the honorable President George W. Bush.

NEWMAN: Next we have with us Mr. Hector Palacios from the Independent Social Studies Association. And I would like to ask Mr. Palacios, if he agrees with Elizardo and also if -- Mr. Bush says that he is going to contribute more funds, that the U.S. government will help financially both the church and opposition groups. I would like to know what you think about that.

HECTOR PALACIOS, CUBAN DISSIDENT (through translator): I think that Elizardo's words summarize my thought as well. We have just finished listening here in Cuba -- a very tranquil presentation by Mr. -- former president, Mr. Carter. Notwithstanding, this morning's address by Mr. Bush is a lot more tranquil than what has been announced, and it has dealt with something that interests us a lot, which is part of the Varela Project that we were talking about here, which talks about the freedom of speech, liberty, and the recognition by the Cuban government that should give the opposition groups and talks about free elections, and the needs that Cubans -- we need to have property and to foster a positive civil society, and that -- from that perspective, I am very much in agreement with the presentation by Mr. Bush, and I would like to thank you for -- him for being so much in touch with those issues.

NEWMAN: Gizella Del Gado, I would like to ask you your thoughts. Gizella Del Gado runs an independent library here.

GIZELLA DEL GADO, CUBAN DISSIDENT (through translator): Mr. Bush's address, I thought, it was very, again, tranquil. It wasn't exactly what we thought, given what the radio stations had broadcast, what we're thinking about having. It seems to me, it's been very important for the Cuban people, the recognition of the internal opposition groups, and support that's going to be given to religious organizations and human organizations in support of civil society will be very important for all of us.

NEWMAN: And last, we have with us Vladimiro Roca, whom you may recognize. Vladimiro has just spent five years in prison for opposing the Cuban government, and was released two weeks ago.

VLADIMIRO ROCA, CUBAN DISSIDENT: Elizardo said it was a very, tranquil easy going, but the tensions are not relaxed. The relations are still tense between Cuba and the United States, and I believe he talked about the friendship by the American people, the conditions of the friendship between our two peoples. I think that our relations, our friendship is never under doubt. It has always existed and always will. The friendship between the U.S. and Cuba is actually the one that is very difficult at the moment and it is the one that we have to fix and -- force and violence are not the way to do this.

On the other hand, I consider that the help should not come from the U.S. to Cuba. The help should come from humanitarian and NGOs, all these organizations, but not directly from the government of the U.S. to Cuba. I don't believe in that part of the address, ascending help from your government to our people.

NEWMAN: Well, Leon, as you can see, and can hear, there are different views here. Most of them supporting the general tone of President Bush's speech, but in some cases criticizing the suggestion that the U.S. government should give funding to independent organizations, and opposition groups. Others calling for more openness, as President Jimmy Carter had suggested while he was here.

As for the Cuban government, we expect that we will hear from it later on this afternoon or early this evening -- back to you, Leon.

HARRIS: All right. Very interesting. Lucia Newman there in Havana. We thank you very much. Very interesting, and interesting to hear the use of the word "tranquil" in their descriptions there after listening to that speech. President Bush is going to be having some more comments on this plan later on today. He is going to be traveling down to Miami, to Little Havana, as it is known down there, and he is going to be speaking before some people who will probably be quite -- very well in his corner, if you go by the remarks that we have heard this morning.




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