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Bush announces initiatives for Cuban dissidents

Cuban-Americans significant voting bloc in Florida

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President Bush talks to reporters in the Rose Garden about his plan for Cuba.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Declaring that "Cuba must change," President Bush Friday announced modest initiatives to "hasten the arrival of a new, free, democratic Cuba" and to prepare for the day when President Fidel Castro -- who seized power more than four decades ago -- is in charge no more.

"Cuba will soon be free," Bush said in Spanish in a Rose Garden address to a crowd that included a number of politicians from South Florida, a politically powerful haven for anti-Castro exiles.

Bush said Castro has responded to his diplomatic initiatives aimed at easing restrictions on trade and travel between the two countries "with defiance and contempt and a new round of brutal oppression that outraged the world's conscience."

Bush cited lengthy prison terms meted out to Cuban opposition members.

Friday was a national holiday in Cuba and no immediate response was available from Havana.

In addition, Bush said, elections in Cuba "are still a sham. Opposition groups still organize and meet at their own peril, private economic activity is still strangled. Non-government trade unions are still oppressed and suppressed. Property rights are still ignored and most goods and services produced in Cuba are still reserved for the political elite.

"Clearly, the Castro regime will not change by its own choice, but Cuba must change," Bush said.

Enforcement of travel restrictions already in place will be strengthened, he said. "We've instructed the Department of Homeland Security to increase inspections of travelers and shipments to and from Cuba."

The U.S. Treasury Department forbids Americans to spend money in Cuba on pleasure trips, but exceptions are made for people visiting relatives, offering humanitarian aid or conducting research.

"Those exceptions are too often used as cover for illegal business travel and tourism or to skirt the restrictions on carrying cash into Cuba," Bush said.

In addition, U.S. citizens who travel to Cuba through third countries or by boat in violation of the U.S. embargo will be targeted, he said.

Bush said U.S. travelers to the island enrich the Castro government simply by paying their hotel bills in dollars. "Foreign-owned resorts in Cuba must pay the wages of their Cuban workers to the government. The government, in turn, pays the workers a pittance in worthless pesos and keeps the hard currency to prop up the dictator and his cronies."

In Cuba, leading dissident Vladimiro Roca told CNN that he applauded the speech, but felt U.S. tourism has little impact on Castro's hold on power. "Our fight is with the Cuban government, not with the Americans," he said.

Bush also said he would work to "ensure that Cubans fleeing the dictator do not risk their lives at sea" by increasing the number of Cuban immigrants allowed to enter the United States each year and by informing Cubans "of the many routes of safe and legal entry into the United States."

In addition, the U.S. government will establish a committee to "hasten" the arrival of "the happy day when Castro's regime is no more and democracy comes to the island," Bush said.

It will be led by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Housing Secretary Mel Martinez, who was born on the island.

"We'll be prepared," said Bush, who has been criticized for what some have called his government's lack of planning prior to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Bush further promised to "continue to build a strong international coalition to advance the cause of freedom inside Cuba."

The president said he would increase the distribution of printed material on the island, increase the effectiveness of Radio and TV Marti, whose communications are regularly jammed by the Cuban government, and boost Internet-based information for Cubans, though few of the island's residents have access to the Internet.

"We're determined to bring the truth to the people who suffer under Fidel Castro," he said.

Cracking down on U.S. travel will also help limit the island's prostitution -- "a modern form of slavery which is encouraged by the Cuban government," Bush said.

The Castro regime has publicly opposed the sex trade. It has flourished on the island in the wake of economic pressures caused by the dissolution of its former trading ally, the Soviet Union, and the U.S. embargo, which was imposed in 1961.

Asked what evidence Bush had to support his contention that the Cuban government encourages the sex trade, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said he did not have that information with him, but would make it available to reporters later.

Administration officials said the new measures, while modest, were, as one put it, "real things" to strengthen the administration's Cuba policy.

Bush has steadfastly resisted calls by those who believe easing sanctions would do more to advance the cause of democracy in Cuba.

One of those, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, expressed disappointment in the speech.

"For more than four decades, the U.S. has pursued an absurd policy of embargo that has accomplished nothing but to increase the misery of the Cuban people and further isolate them from the American people," the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee said in a written statement. "The only beneficiary of the embargo is Castro himself, who is sheltered by the wall we have built around the island."

Baucus added, "I would hope that, at some point, we could move beyond a policy toward Cuba that is held hostage by the politics of the Electoral College. Today's announcement indicates that the administration isn't ready to put the needs of the Cuban people before politics."

It is no secret that Bush is courting anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in advance of next year's presidential election, believing their support is critical in presidential battleground states like Florida.

Bush is the 10th U.S. president since Castro took power in 1959.

A Cuba policy analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington was also critical of the changes.

"If we're waiting for Fidel Castro to pass, we could be waiting for a couple more presidents," said Anya Landau. "These are simply rehashed, repackaged versions of a very tired and ineffective policy."

White House correspondent John King and Havana bureau chief Lucia Newman contributed to this story.


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