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Wednesday, 15 May, 2002, 17:26 GMT 18:26 UK
US defends Cuba trade embargo
Jimmy Carter makes his speech
Jimmy Carter encouraged more political debate in Cuba
The United States Government has defended its trade embargo against Cuba, rejecting calls from former President Jimmy Carter for the ban to be lifted.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said trade with Cuba would only serve to "prop up a repressive regime" and would not benefit the people of the island.

He said some things that Cuban people have not heard before about their rights, about their freedom in Cuba, and that's helpful and positive

Ari Fleischer
He said President George W Bush believed the four-decade-old embargo was "a vital part of America's policy towards Cuba".

The White House did, however, praise Mr Carter's call for greater democracy in Cuba - in an unprecedented television address to the Cuban nation Mr Carter urged Havana to allow greater freedom of expression and free elections.

With Cuba's President Fidel Castro looking on, Mr Carter said that the US "should take the first step" towards improving relations between the two countries.

Differing views

But the Bush administration took little time in showing that their support for the trade embargo stands firm.

"The president believes that the trade embargo is a vital part of American foreign policy and human rights policy toward Cuba," Mr Fleischer said.

"Trade with Cuba does not benefit the people of Cuba. It is used to prop up a repressive regime," he added.

George W Bush
Bush would like to tighten the embargo

The BBC's Nick Bryant says that rather than lift the trade embargo, the Bush administration would like to see it tightened.

But not all US politicians share President Bush's view - a bipartisan group of 40 law makers is calling for an easing of the embargo.

Mr Fleischer did praise Mr Carter for talking about the need for increased human rights in Cuba.

"He said some things that Cuban people have not heard before about their rights, about their freedom in Cuba, and that's helpful and positive," Mr Fleischer said.

Critics pleased

Mr Carter also urged Mr Castro to allow UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson to visit Cuba and praised a project by Cuban dissidents seeking a referendum on broad political and economic reforms.

Cuban exiles in America welcomed Mr Carter's criticism of Cuba's political system.

Jimmy Carter (left) and Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro strongly denies being involved in biological weaponry

Executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, Joe Garcia, said: "Fidel Castro had to sit there while he was given a speech on democracy, something the Cuban people have not been able to hear for 43 years."

Mr Carter's speech - which he made in Spanish at Havana University on Tuesday - was broadcast live and uncensored on Cuban TV and radio.

It came on the third day of his landmark visit to the island, which has been dominated by a row over US claims that Cuba is involved in the development of biological weapons.

Referendum call

Mr Carter gave his support to moves by dissidents to bring about changes to Cuba's one-party communist system.

His mention of the initiative - known as the Varela Project - was the first time many Cubans had learned of the campaign.

Organisers of the project have handed in a petition bearing 11,020 signatures to the Cuban National Assembly asking for a referendum on civil liberties.

The referendum would ask voters if they are in favour of human rights, an amnesty for political prisoners, the right to have own a business and electoral reform.

"When Cubans exercise this freedom to change laws peacefully by a direct vote, the world will see that Cubans, and not foreigners, will decide the future of this country," Mr Carter said.

Mr Carter also said that property disputes between Cuba and US firms and Cuban exiles should be resolved and suggested Cuban exiles could be used to bridge the gap between the two countries.

The BBC's Ian Pannell in Havana
"What Jimmy Carter has done in Havana is set out a roadmap to normal relations"

Cold thaw
Is it time to lift the embargo against Cuba?
See also:

15 May 02 | Americas
Carter's speech to Cubans
14 May 02 | Americas
US plays down Cuba terror link
13 May 02 | Americas
Carter brings Cubans hope
13 May 02 | Americas
Cuba opens up for Carter
11 May 02 | Americas
Castro hits back at US 'lies'
06 May 02 | Americas
US expands 'axis of evil'
09 May 02 | Americas
US and Cuba's complex relations
24 May 01 | Americas
Cuba blasts Bush over dissidents
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