Bush rejects idea of negotiating with Raul Castro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush on Thursday rejected the idea of encouraging Cuba to open up democratically by sitting down for talks with new Cuban President Raul Castro.

President George W. Bush holds a news conference in the White House Press Briefing Room in Washington February 28, 2008. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Asked at a White House news conference what would be lost by a meeting, Bush said: “What’s lost by embracing a tyrant who puts his people in prison because of their political beliefs? What’s lost is it will send the wrong message.”

“It will give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity. I’m not suggesting there is never a time to talk,” Bush said, but he added now was not the time to begin discussions with Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother, Fidel, as Cuban leader on Sunday.

“He’s nothing more than an extension of what his brother did, which was to ruin an island and to imprison people because of their beliefs,” said Bush, who tightened sanctions against Havana during his first term.

Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama recently expressed a willingness to move quickly toward a meeting with Fidel Castro’s successor, just as he had earlier committed to direct talks with leaders of hostile nations if he is elected president in November.

“If we think that a meeting with the president is a privilege that has to be earned I think that reinforces the sense that we stand alone above the rest of the world,” he said during a debate with rival Sen. Hillary Clinton on February 21.

Clinton was more cautious, saying that Cuba first needed to make progress on long-standing U.S. complaints such as improving human rights and releasing political prisoners.

After his election on Sunday, Raul Castro said he would stay faithful to the communist revolution that took power 49 years ago with Fidel Castro as its leader.

Although he is seen as willing to enact limited economic reforms to help a population struggling with shortages of food and other essentials, Raul Castro picked close political and military allies for the leadership team rubber-stamped by the National Assembly.

German President Horst Koehler sent a telegram to Raul Castro congratulating him on his election and said Castro had an opportunity to enact political and economic reforms.

“I link this to the hope that through these reforms it will be possible not only to improve our bilateral relations but also those between Europe and Cuba,” Koehler said in the telegram released on Thursday by his office in Berlin.

Raul Castro, a 76-year-old general, has run Cuba as acting president since Fidel Castro fell ill in July 2006. Fidel Castro, 81, had dominated almost every aspect of Cuban life since his 1959 revolution and was expected to remain a powerful force behind the scenes.

Reporting by David Alexander, editing by Jackie Frank and Eric Beech