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Tuesday, 21 May, 2002, 06:02 GMT 07:02 UK
Cuba condemns Bush over embargo
Fidel Castro and Jimmy Carter
Carter's Cuba visit already seems a long time ago
The Cuban authorities have angrily dismissed remarks by US President George W Bush, in which he reaffirmed his commitment to maintain Washington's trade embargo against Havana.

President Bush set out a list of conditions which he said had to be met by President Fidel Castro's government in order for the sanctions to be eased.

You have to have a nerve to go to Miami and speak of honest and clean elections

Ricardo Alarcon, head of Cuban legislature
But in a Cuban television programme, National Assembly speaker Ricardo Alarcon criticised Mr Bush for pandering to the "terrorist mafia" in Miami, as he called the vehemently anti-Castro Cuban exile community there.

Mr Alarcon also chided the US president for "having the nerve" to raise the issue of free elections in Florida - where Mr Bush was handed victory in 2000 after one of the most controversial votes in US history.

Dissidents in Cuba have welcomed Mr Bush's call for reform, but said both Washington and Havana should be prepared to be more flexible in order to begin dialogue.

Firm stance

Speaking from the White House on the 100th anniversary of Cuban independence, President Bush rejected growing calls for an easing of restrictions on Cuba, arguing that it would only benefit what he called a "brutal dictatorship".

US President George W Bush
Bush said political prisoners must be freed
Outlining what he called his new initiative for the country, he said he wanted the island to hold free and fair National Assembly elections next year, release political prisoners and allow a free opposition.

"Then and only then, I will work with the US Congress to ease the ban on trade and travel between our two countries," he said.

Later, Mr Bush travelled to Miami where he made a further speech telling Cuban-Americans that real change could come about if Cubans were allowed to hold a referendum on their future.

The support of Florida's Cuban-American community was crucial to Mr Bush's election victory.

His brother Jeb, the current governor of the state, also faces a tough re-election battle there in November.

Cuban rebuttal

Mr Alarcon, who is President Castro's top adviser on US affairs, hit back at Mr Bush's comments during a Cuban television programme called The Round Table.

George W Bush (left) with brother Jeb
Bush is accused of helping his brother
In a reference to the US presidential election in November 2000, in which Mr Bush's White House victory hinged on a disputed result in Florida, he said: "You have to have a nerve to go to Miami and speak of honest and clean elections."

And he described the Bush speeches as "a gesture of thanks and gratitude" towards the large anti-Castro Cuban community in southern Florida for their support of his brother Jeb.

Cuban media commentator Randy Alonso, speaking on the same programme, said: "The president went hunting for Cuban votes in South Florida to help his little brother."

The response from dissidents in Havana was more positive.

Vladimiro Roca, who was released from prison earlier this month, said: "Both the Cuban government and the US government should make changes... in which dialogue should prevail."

Elizardo Sanchez, leader of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said he supported all Mr Bush's references to human rights and the release of political prisoners "but the rest of his address is Cold War rhetoric".

Distant memory

President Bush's address comes only days after former US President Jimmy Carter called for an end to the US embargo during a visit to Cuba.

Mr Carter and other critics - including some members of the US Congress - argue that the US restrictions have failed to end Mr Castro's hold on power while making life harder for ordinary Cubans.

Mr Carter - the first sitting or former US president to visit since Mr Castro rose to power in 1959 - spoke openly during his visit about the shortcomings in Cuba's political system in an unprecedented television address.

But the BBC's Cuban correspondent Daniel Schweimler says that last week's events - when the two statesmen spoke about improving relations between their two countries - are now just a distant memory.

The BBC's Richard Slee
"Cuba's relationship with the US is at one of its lowest points for 40 years"
President George W Bush
"The goal of the United States policy toward Cuba... is freedom for Cuba's people"
Wayne Smith of the Centre for International Policy
"Our hardline policy hasn't worked in forty years and won't work now"
See also:

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