The White House today rejected former President Jimmy Carter's calls for lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, saying such a move would "prop up an oppressive regime."
In an unprecedented live and uncensored speech on Tuesday in Havana to an audience that included Cuban President Fidel Castro, Carter urged the U.S. Congress to lift the 40-year embargo on the Caribbean island.
But the White House said today the embargo must stay in place.
"The president believes that the trade embargo is a vital part of America's foreign policy and human rights policy toward Cuba, because trade with Cuba does not benefit the people of Cuba — it's used to prop up a repressive regime," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
Bush is scheduled to unveil his Cuban policy next Monday at the White House and later visit a Cuban-American community in Miami and headline a fund-raiser for his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Aides told The Associated Press that the president will seek to toughen U.S. action against the Cuban government and soften the approach toward the Cuban people. Measures aimed at the Castro government are designed to inject elements of democracy, including government-business foundations modeled after an approach the United States took with Poland as that nation emerged from communism, one official told the AP.
Hours before Carter's speech on Tuesday, Bush said he appreciates "President Carter's focus on human rights."
"I think that's important in Cuba, a place where there is no human rights," Bush said, but noted that Carter's trip "hasn't changed my foreign policy." White House officials have complained in private that Carter's anti-embargo stance could overshadow the Bush policy on Cuba.
Meanwhile, a group of 40 lawmakers announced support for easing the Cuban embargo.
"For over 40 years, our policy toward Cuba has yielded no results," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the House International Relations Committee. "Castro hasn't held free and fair elections, he hasn't improved human rights, and he hasn't stopped preaching his hate for democracy and the U.S.
"I think it's safe to say that our current policy has failed," Flake said. "It's time to try something new."
First Time in Nearly Four Years
In Cuba, Carter's call for a popular vote on reform and mention of the Varela Project, a fledging democracy effort that has gathered enough signatures to permit a referendum, continued to be discussion topic No. 1.
"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," Carter said in his Tuesday address, speaking in Spanish.
Activists said Carter's mention of Varela — named for the late Catholic priest and independence hero Felix Varela — was the first time most Cubans had heard of it, since it has not been covered at all in Cuba's state-backed media.
"We feel ashamed that a North American president, a former U.S. president, has to come here for Cubans to learn that within Cuba there is a legal initiative under way backed by the constitution, not in the U.S. but in Cuba," Project coordinator Oswaldo Paya told the AP.
But some ordinary Cubans were more cautious in their reactions.
"I respect his opinions," 50-year-old secretary Graciela Rodriguez told the AP. "This gentleman was president and is convinced of his ideas. But he is not Cuban."
"On the day that relations between our countries are normalized, Cuba should thank Carter," said Gisela Frances, a 36-year-old office worker. "He has planted an important little seed."
Some took offense.
"They can't tell us how to organize ourselves," Victor del Sol told the AP. "We do our own thing, for all the mistakes and imperfections but that is the way we do things. The car still moves forward."
Carter's speech was the first time a foreign dignitary was allowed to freely address the Cuban people since Pope John Paul II's homily during a 1998 Mass in Havana's Revolution Square.
Carter arrived in Cuba on Sunday, the first U.S. president to visit since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. He is the highest-profile American to go to the island in the 43 years of enmity between Washington and Havana since Castro came to power in a 1959 revolution.