Bush: Cuba Embargo Stays

President Bush waves without taking any questions from reporters at the White House Sunday May19, 2002 in Washington. Bush spent his weekend at nearby Camp David.
President Bush on Monday set conditions for easing the embargo against Communist-led Cuba, including "free and fair" elections and market reforms, seeking to balance the competing demands of politically powerful Cuban Americans with business and the interests of free-trade Republicans.

"If Cuba's government takes all the necessary steps to ensure that the 2003 elections are 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 said.

Bush did temper his approach toward Cuban President Fidel Castro, who he branded a "tyrant," with promises to ease the plight of the Cuban people with humanitarian assistance and negotiate the resumption of mail service to and from the island.

If all his conditions are met, Bush will support lifting the congressionally mandated trade ban even if Castro is still in charge, according to White House officials speaking on condition of anonymity. Bush does not envision Castro making the necessary changes, the officials said.

Bush said trade, however well intentioned "will not help the Cuban people; it will merely enrich Castro and his cronies" and prop up the dictatorship.

"Meaningful reform on Cuba's part will be answered with a meaningful United States response," he said. "The choice rests with Mr. Castro."

Pledging to help the Cuban people weather the nation's economic crisis, Bush called for the resumption of mail service and promised assistance to nongovernmental organizations that aid Cubans. He also pledged to create scholarships in the United States for Cuban students, family members of political prisoners and professionals trying to build civil institutions in the communist regime.

Money still needs to be found for the scholarship program, White House officials said. They said the initiatives can be carried out without congressional approval

Last week, a 40-member, bipartisan group in Congress announced support for easing the embargo. The private Human Rights Watch called for the same, saying the embargo "imposes indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people and impedes democratic change."

Politics loomed large over Bush's events Monday.

Cuban-American voters helped carry him to a narrow victory in Florida, the state that decided the 2000 election, and they favor the kind of hard line he was espousing. The tough talk also could appeal to the broader Hispanic vote throughout the United States.

Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, faces re-election this year and is depending on Cuban-Americans, who vote heavily Republican.

The president was to headline a fund-raiser Monday evening for the Florida Republican Party, which will use the money to boost Jeb Bush's re-election campaign. It will be the third fund-raiser for his brother the president has attended this year.