March 8, 2008 / 6:36 PM / 10 years ago

Bush rejects easing of U.S. embargo on Cuba

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush said on Friday that Cuba had replaced one dictator with another and vowed to maintain hard-line policies against the communist-ruled island until it begins a democratic transition.

President George W. Bush makes a statement about the economy outside of the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, March 7, 2008. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Bush insisted that Fidel Castro, despite having stepped aside last month and turned over the presidency to his brother Raul, “is still influencing events from behind the scenes.”

Speaking after a White House meeting with Cuban dissidents, he made clear he thought his critics had been wrong to see the ailing Cuban leader’s retirement as a chance to reconsider a decades-old U.S. trade embargo.

“That sentiment is exactly backward,” Bush told reporters. “To improve relations, what needs to change is not the United States. What needs to change is Cuba.

“Cuba’s government must begin a process of peaceful democratic change. They must release all political prisoners. They must have respect for human rights in word and deed and pave the way for free and fair elections,” he said.

Growing ranks of U.S. politicians, from one-fourth of Congress to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, are urging a review of the U.S. policy of shunning Cuba.

Bush, who leaves office in January, has rejected any move toward normalizing relations, including holding talks with Raul Castro, Cuba’s first new leader in almost half a century. He has pledged to remain faithful to the communist revolution that brought his brother to power in 1959.

“This is the same system, the same faces and the same policies that led to Cuba’s miseries in the first place,” Bush said. “The United States is isolating the Cuban regime.”

The European Union’s top development aid official arrived in Cuba on Thursday to sound out the new president’s plans and relaunch ties that were largely frozen under his brother. Washington had opposed the visit.

Without naming any countries, Bush lamented that more of the world’s major democracies had not joined the United States and others in speaking out against Cuba’s human rights record.

Fidel Castro, who for decades has accused Washington of imperialism in the hemisphere, has said the kind of change Bush demands in Cuba would be tantamount to U.S. “annexation” of the island.

Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Bill Trott

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