Bush wants Cuban democratic transition post-Castro

KIGALI Tue Feb 19, 2008 12:12pm EST

People pass a billboard showing Cuba's retired leader Fidel Castro in Havana, February 19, 2008. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa

People pass a billboard showing Cuba's retired leader Fidel Castro in Havana, February 19, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Enrique De La Osa

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KIGALI (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush on Tuesday said he hoped the retirement of Cuban leader Fidel Castro would be the beginning of democratic transition in Cuba.

"I believe that the change from Fidel Castro ought to begin a period of a democratic transition," Bush said at a news conference in Rwanda during a five-country African trip.

Castro, 81, said that he will not return to lead the country as president or commander-in-chief, retiring as head of state 49 years after he seized power in an armed revolution.

In Washington, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said it was unlikely that the United States would lift its trade embargo on Cuba.

"I can't imagine that happening any time soon," Negroponte told reporters at the State Department. The United States has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba for more than four decades to try to isolate Castro.

Bush said the first step for Cuba should be to free political prisoners, and the international community should work with Cubans to start building institutions necessary for democracy.

"Eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections, and I mean free and I mean fair," Bush said. "Not these kind of staged elections that the Castro brothers try to foist off as being true democracy," he said.

"And we're going to help. The United States will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty," Bush said.

Washington's relations with Cuba have been hostile since soon after Castro came to power in 1959 and began steering the island on a course that aligned it with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The Bush administration greeted Castro's illness and his provisional hand-over of power in the summer of 2006 coolly, since it did not expect much change to the one-party system under his brother, Raul Castro.

(Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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